Climbing hydrangeas can hide flaws with blossoms

 

Like many area gardens, ours has bunch of faltering spruce trees. The insects moving into them are a boon to the local birds so instead of chopping them down I’m trying an experiment — encouraging climbing hydrangeas to fill in for the missing spruce boughs.

Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris) is a liana, or woody vine, native to Japan and China that’s rather famous for producing large white lace-cap flowers even when planted in the shade. It’s a huge beast of a plant, however, and unless you have a large structure or a stone wall for it to clamber over, it’s too much for many gardens. Clinging rootlets allow it to attach itself to its support so it can damage wooden shingles or clapboards and discolor vinyl siding. It’s a toss-up in tests to see if it damages mortar on masonry structures any more than the weather does.

I have two of these plants and can verify that they really do produce flowers in the shade. The first one I planted in exactly the wrong conditions, on an open fence where its rootlets can’t get a hold on the east side of our yard in the deep, dry shade of a sugar maple and ancient apple tree. It’s only about six feet tall and wide after fifteen years, but it faithfully produces loads of flowers each June despite getting little of the moisture hydrangeas crave.

A few years later, I figured I’d use another one to hide the seam between the brick on our old house and the stucco on the second floor addition. This location is also dry but it gets hours of hard west sun. My tiny plant took to the spot like a champion and now fits the “beast” description. My husband has to trim it twice a year to keep it away from the fragile stucco and the windows, but it’s still over twenty feet high and it sprawls across the brick of the house for more than thirty feet. If we allowed it, the hydrangea would already be raising the tiles on our roof.

This plant blooms its head off and although books don’t seem to admire its autumn color, ours was a glowing yellow for several weeks until the recent rain knocked the leaves off. That exposed the exfoliating cinnamon-colored bark it sports in winter.

That exuberant growth is just what I need on the spruces, which have had their dead limbs trimmed and look like Christmas trees atop thirty-foot poles. How much nicer they’d look swathed in heart-shaped green leaves and six-inch flowers. I hate to admit it, but I got the idea second-hand from a botanic garden through the web page of that dominatrix of domesticity, Martha Stewart. But it still seems worth trying since I can get a start from one of my existing plants. Any branch that falls to the ground can root, so climbing hydrangea can also be used as a groundcover.

A related climber, Schizophragma hydrangeoides, would also look nice on a spruce if I can find one. It’s frequently confused with climbing hydrangea but has a slightly different leaf and flower. Under the right conditions, the flowers may be pink, too. Either plant sounds like an improvement over the current view from my window.

I have high hopes for my coming experiment. The birds and critters can still use the spruces, and even when the trees finally die, there’s enough trunk to support a vigorous climber like the hydrangea. And it will be a unique look — if I can just be patient. It can take years for climbing hydrangea to establish itself, but I know it’s worth the wait.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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