Celebrating small flowers

Huge flowers may be impressive, but small ones may be easier to care for. Supersize flowers often can come with supersize maintenance requirements

Courtesy of Amy Ziffer
This lacecap hydrangea has blooms that are small and charming. It's Hydrangea arborescens ssp. radiata, and is hardy to Zone 5.
Courtesy of Amy Ziffer
Annabelle hydrangea has impressive flowers, but they're so large that the bush has trouble holding them up.
Courtesy of Amy Ziffer
While dahlia blooms come in sizes that rival dinner plates, the small ones have a distinct charm all their own.

For as long as people have been growing plants for beauty instead of utility, plant breeders have had an obsession with developing ever bigger flowers. Within reason, that’s understandable. Sometimes, there’s no harm in having a little more of something you like (blueberry pie comes to mind).

But there comes a point with any good thing at which more is just too much.

Today, nurseries are full of plants with flowers so enormous and weighty they literally can’t hold themselves up. I mean, if Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ were a person, she’d be a candidate for breast reduction surgery on grounds of medical necessity. [See first photo at left.]

Plant breeders aren’t the only ones to blame, of course. Someone has to buy all those oversized horticultural wonders. I’m not pointing fingers, but you know who you are. (And I admit that I’m one of them, although I’m recovering.)

Well, I’m here today to celebrate the (sometime) superiority of small flowers.

Giant peonies flop over

Consider the peony. Nearly every Paeonia lactiflora (the common herbaceous peony — the plant most people think of when you say “peony”) you can find at a retail nursery will have gigantic bombe-type flowers. They’re upwards of six inches across and fully double with hundreds of petals. When open, they weigh so much that their stalks will bend or break as a result of a decent rain or a good gust of wind, leaving the flowers in the dust.

In other words, all it takes is some normal weather to cause most peony flowers to collapse.

Peony hoops really aren’t much help. They just cause the stalks to bend and break above the level of the hoop, as opposed to lower down. Staking methods that attempt to solve this problem, such as a circle of chicken wire, are (in my opinion) ugly and time-consuming. I’m looking more for “attractive and easy” gardening methods, or better yet, “do nothing at all” methods.

I just don’t understand why people put themselves through this when, by growing single peonies, they could avoid the problem altogether. Take a look at these beautiful single peonies from Hidden Springs Flower Farm. At most, these plants need a single hoop encircling the whole clump just to hold them upright in case of some really severe weather.

Dahlias much smaller than dinner plates

Dahlias are pretty much the same story. Certain dark forces in the world of horticulture would have you believe that so-called “dinner plate” dahlias are the most desirable and obviously worth their premium price.

You’ll never catch me buying them, though. My favorite dahlia is the unidentified orange one in the second photo at left above, which a client in my garden design business shared with me many years ago. Its flowers are about 3 inches across and perfect for flower arrangements because they’re in scale with black-eyed Susans and other perennials that flower in mid to late summer when the dahlia does.

I see similar ones in catalogs all the time … usually at a cheaper price than their overgrown relatives. Yes, the plant as a whole requires a great big tomato cage, but the individual stems are perfectly capable of holding up the flowers without additional support.

I have mentioned Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ already. I still grow her, but she is a handful. I’d much prefer a cultivar with flowers about half the size, but wishing doesn’t make it so. (I’m not the only one. Read blogger Tim Wood’s extensive ramblings about hydrangeas here.)

One alternative is to grow the species or its subspecies, H. a. ssp. radiata, both of which produce lacecap floral displays [see photo above] instead of foot-wide snowballs. (There are many other lacecap types, but they won’t bloom reliably in Zones 5 and colder.) These choices won’t fall to pieces after a summer downpour.

My message here is that bigger is not necessarily better. Supersize flowers can come with supersize maintenance requirements. That doesn’t make them bad … just more work. As the old saying goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” and that’s enough of a reason for me to celebrate small flowers.


As the owner of A Shady Lady Garden Design, Amy Ziffer has been working with landscaping clients in western Connecticut since 1998. She’s a former editor at Fine Gardening magazine, a contributor to many magazines and books, and she also blogs at her own website. Her specialty is cold climate ornamental gardening with a focus on gardening in the Northeast. In addition to liking horticulture, she’s fond of critters (wild and domestic), physics, math, and intense outdoor sports, especially in the cold and snow.

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