A thirst for hydrangeas

My mum’s hydrangeas, scorched by bushfire in summer, have been flowering all through winter, as if in gratitude for their unlikely survival. Seeing them recently reminded me that in their native Japan hydrangeas are traditionally associated with heartfelt emotions. The origin story tells of an emperor who fell in love with a local girl but was unable to marry her. In lieu of a life together he gave her a hydrangea.


Hydrangeas.Credit:Robin Powell

The plant developed a completely different meaning in Europe through the late 19th century.

The Symbolist poet and renowned dandy Comte Robert de Montesquiou adopted the hydrangea (known as hortensia in France) as his personal motif. He became known as Hortenisou, was painted in fabulous hortensia-patterned clothes and commissioned works of art and furniture featuring the flower. For him it represented melancholy, death and difference. In an era of constrained sexualities, the difference that concerned him was homosexuality.

Proust, who used Montesquiou as a model for his promiscuous gay aristocrat Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past, wrote about “all those beardless men with feminine faces, garlanded with hortensias.” Prejudice against homosexuality led the flower to be associated with vanity, its vibrant blue colour a metaphor for the "unnatural".

The striking colour of the hydrangea is a result of the plant’s unusual ability to accumulate aluminium, which forms chemical compounds in the flower that colour it blue. This only happens when the soil acidity allows the aluminium to become available. When the soil pH goes the other way, towards the alkaline end of the spectrum, hydrangeas are pink.

My mum’s version is an unnamed, charming old mophead. These have much to recommend them, though breeders have released some great improvements. The "Forever" series, for instance, is small enough for pots or small gardens and flowers from mid-spring until late summer. The "Obsidian" collection includes plants with lace cap, mophead, and oversized mophead flowers, all on plants with shiny black stems. I like "White Knight" with greenish-white flowers that contrast with the deep green leaves and black stems.

The next time I see my mum, it’ll be time to prune the hydrangeas, which are best cut back in late winter. We’ll take a few of the oldest, gnarliest stems out at ground level. The stems only produce flowers for five or six years and once the bark starts peeling off the stems it’s time they made way for new growth. We’ll leave the unflowered stems that grew after the fires, but prune the flowered stems back to the first pair of plump buds under the flower heads. Those trimmed flowers will be taken inside to be marvelled at some more. The blooms are smaller than summer flowers and the cold weather has tinged their sky-blue heads with tints of red and purple, but they feel like some kind of promise that next summer will be better.

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