ACA Blog

Hope Yancey
Dec 29, 2010

In the Classroom of the Hydrangeas

Home and garden and lifestyle publications are replete with images of them at particular times of year, their prolific blooms emblazoned across the glossy magazine pages. Their colors – pink, blue, lavender, deep purple, lime green and white – dot the landscape of my suburban neighborhood, too, showy blossoms that come about May and herald summer’s arrival. Nurseries burst at the seams with them in the warmer months, waiting to be carried away and nurtured.

Suddenly, while I wasn’t looking, hydrangeas have become the flower of the moment. Just as the trend of their wider popularity has crept up on me, I have been surprised and charmed by my own newfound affection for these flowers.

It wasn’t always this way. I used to be disinclined to appreciate the hydrangea for its finer qualities; I did not think of it as a young person’s flower and even found it stodgy. How things change. These days, the hydrangea brings to mind the mystique of a refined Southern garden.

I had not thought much of my hydrangeas, several of them, during the December cold. After all, they were tucked away in their outdoor beds for the winter, their roots nestled safely beneath warm blankets of burlap, their bare canes wrapped in still more of the material. A layer of leaves left atop the surrounding pine needles added an additional measure of protection.

Then my household received a lovely new hydrangea over the holidays, a small potted shrub in a muted red and green, paisley-patterned ceramic pot. Snowy white flowers with pointed petals burst from among the dark leaves of the plant. The care instructions that came with it described it as a Shooting Star hydrangea, a different variety of Lace Cap I’d never seen before.

We’ll let it overwinter indoors before planting it in a good place outside in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. In the meantime, I think there is something to be learned from observing hydrangeas, with implications for counselors.

My fascination with the flowers all began with a couple of big leaf hydrangeas we received as a housewarming present about two and a half years ago. I dutifully settled them in an appropriate backyard spot, in some mulch by a privacy fence next to the driveway, and set about learning all I could about these plants with which I previously had no firsthand experience.

Flower color is determined partly by soil conditions. Blue flowers come from lowering the pH with the addition of aluminum sulfate to make it more acid. Pink arise from alkaline soil with a higher pH, achieved with the addition of lime. Not a bad lesson for life: You get out what you put in.

I watched as my beloved hydrangeas would wilt and droop in the heat of the afternoon sun, their mop heads hanging limp, only to rally with a refreshing sip of water. Resilience.

One of the two plants, always less lush than the other and failing to bloom for multiple seasons in a row, faced danger at the hands of my husband who wanted to pull out the ne’er-do-well. Going into our third summer in the house, it must have sensed the urgency of the situation, as it finally displayed signs of an intent to bloom. Patience is a virtue, don’t they always say?

Another of my hydrangeas brings to mind the meaning of home and family, the value in putting down roots and whether these are things that can be carried with you. And whether inheritances might come in many forms. Something besides a shrub has taken root in the garden.

My mother’s aunt Frances remained single and lived her entire adult life in the same childhood home, a rambling white wood frame house with brick pillars in front and green shutters, in historic Cheraw, South Carolina. In her side yard, behind the screened porch, stood an elegantly imposing hydrangea bush that had been growing an estimated 40-50 years by the time my mother fetched a few stems of the plant, roots and all, before the sale of the house to new owners.

“Auntie Frank” was organizing her affairs in the early 1990s in anticipation of a planned move to live with a sister and had directed nieces and nephews to retrieve what they wanted from the house. My mother, a teacher with a keen sense of history “wherever she can find it” she says, recognized the extraordinary opportunity to have a living, breathing family heirloom in the form of part of Auntie Frank’s stately oak leaf hydrangea, a variety known for its distinctively shaped foliage.

The Third Street property had rich family traditions associated with it, as my mother had spent carefree weekends there playing with cousins in her girlhood. I fondly remember childhood visits myself, pondering the decorative “Aftermath” yard sign gracing the front walk, a bit of wordplay which evidenced that Auntie Frank – a retired teacher of geometry and calculus – was possessed of a certain sense of humor.

It was from Auntie Frank’s hydrangea, a piece of which was transplanted in my mother’s yard nearly two decades ago, that my oak leaf hydrangea came. I planted several stalks, mindful the task might require it in order to be sure of something taking hold. Always have a back-up plan.

I cautiously propped up the delicate stalks against bamboo stakes, lashing them together with garden twine. It’s too soon for my oak leaf hydrangea to bloom – it’s still overcoming the trauma of the transplant – but there was new greenery emerging over the summer, and all signs are that it is holding its own. Bloom where you are planted.

My hydrangeas have opened my eyes to other discoveries. One of my favorite material objects is an antique hurricane lamp, green glass with painted pink flowers, dating to perhaps the late 1800s. I always admired it for its unique beauty. I paused to study the brushstrokes and noticed something I had paid little attention to before: The flowers … they’re hydrangeas.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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