Most folks love panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) in the fall. Sometimes you see cultivars of this woody ornamental grown as a shrub, other times as a standard, or as a small tree that eventually reaches about 25 feet tall.
What all forms have in common are showy panicles, defined by the USDA as pyramidal, loosely branched flower clusters. The shrubs look attractive en masse in the landscape, and the blooms are easy to cut and dry.
The panicles usually start out green, turn creamy white, and finally reach deep rosy pink before browning with cold weather and old age. In southeastern New Hampshire, dead blooms have enough substance to keep their shape through many winter storms.
The common landscape cultivar is ‘Grandiflora,' meaning big flower. You usually see the name abbreviated to peegee, the initials of “paniculata ‘Grandiflora’.” Peegee plants – with their stem-bending blooms – remind me of a grande dame with a chest so heavy that it tips her forward.
If there’s a Victorian house in your town, or a building from the early 20th century, there’s probably a peegee growing near the foundation. Other widespread cultivars are ‘Tardiva’ and ‘Unique,' graceful shrubs known for long, heavy, pointed blooms.
I gave up on my peegee a while back because I let it sucker and become a mess. It was awful. I’ve never grown ‘Tardiva,' although I admire it in other people’s gardens. In recent years, I’ve grown a few newer H. paniculata cultivars including ‘Limelight’ and ‘Pinky Winky.' A grower sent me the latter to trial in my garden.
For me, ‘Limelight’ is the more floriferous, although my summer flowers have been white instead of green. Fall’s papery panicles, however, are deep pink and greenish, and about 6 to 10 inches long.
My ‘Limelight’ shrubs looked so spectacular last week that I cut a bouquet of fresh white and old pink-tinted blooms for my dear friend Rose. I also included in the vase one stunning upright panicle of ‘Pinky Winky,' some rosy flower heads of Autumn Joy sedum, and pinkish inflorescences of ‘Strictus’ maiden grass. (See photo at top.)
One ‘Pinky Winky’ bloom may not sound like much, but this one was a whopping 13 inches long and 8 inches wide, practically a bouquet in itself. The plant’s literature says that the pointy panicles can grow up to 16 inches long.
Flowers open white, but the base of the panicle soon turns pink for a bicolor effect. Such bold blooms are perfect for drying, and that’s just what Rose did with her bouquet.
Penelope O’Sullivan, who writes about trees and shrubs at Diggin’ It, is the author of “The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook: The Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting, and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants.” She has a landscape design business on the New Hampshire seacoast.
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