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Nurturing the magic of hydrangeas

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When Patti Page sang about the many splendors of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod – its sand dunes, salty air and moonlight – she neglected to mention its most colorful: those big, bountiful blooms known as hydrangeas.

They occupy pride of place in C.L. Fornari’s Sandwich, Mass., garden: “They are just extravagant and abundant. And so, people associate them with summer by the sea,” she said.

Hydrangeas are an icon of Cape Cod.

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“These are plush, sort of to the look and the touch,” said correspondent Mo Rocca.

“Yeah, yeah. I mean, who wouldn’t wanna grow this in their garden, right? Who wouldn’t want this?”

In 2015, Fornari started the Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival, an annual 10-day event where flower fanatics tour private gardens, all to benefit local charities.

“I have had people in this garden from Australia,” Fornari told Rocca. “And I have had a family of six that came here to see hydrangeas, and they were from Beijing, China.”

Glorious mophead hydrangeas.

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Now, there are hundreds of different kinds of hydrangeas, from the those marvelous full-bodied mopheads, to the no-less-alluring lacecaps. 

She showed one example of Rocca: “This particular one is called Twist-n-Shout.”

Twist-n-Shout hydrangeas.

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“Ah, somehow that seems right for this!” he laughed.

Yes, a hydrangea by any other name is sure to dazzle the eye, like the Let’s Dance Starlight. “They kind of look like I’m in an ice cream parlor,” Rocca said.

“Unfortunately, they’re not edible; they’re poisonous,” Fornari warned. “So, don’t chow down!”

With some hydrangeas, those vivid colors depend on the soil’s composition. Alkaline soil produces pink, while acidic begets blue. 

Differences in soil can produces different colors. 

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When soils mix, you might see something like this:

C.L. Fornari shows correspondent Mo Rocca a mixed hydrangea plant.

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Fornari said, “We’re looking at a hydrangea with a split personality: blue, pink, and purple all on the same plant.”

“What a happy accident,” said Rocca.

“It is wonderful. And some people do this on purpose.”

Known as “The Garden Lady,” Fornari dishes the dirt on her weekly radioshow, “Gardenline.”

The number one question she gets? “Why isn’t my hydrangea flowering?”

And what is the number one answer? “Either it got so cold in the winter that those buds got zapped, or the spouse pruned it at the wrong time,” she replied.

Pruning is hydrangeas’ hot-button issue. “People play, ‘Can this marriage be saved?’ around this plant … it gets that intense,” she said.

On Cape Cod, the hydrangea hype is real. 

Check out this mophead merch!

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This storied home is named “Hydrangea Walk.”

Hydrangea Walk in Chatham, Mass.

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At Chatham Bars Inn, fine gardener Pamela Vasques oversees the resort’s 4,000 bushes, from their planting (“The first thing we do is tickle the roots”), to their pruning.

Rocca asked, “Do they like the sun or the shade?”

“They like both,” Vasques replied. “Morning sun, afternoon shade.”

“Are they big drinkers?”

“Yes, they are. The hydrangeas do not like to be watered from the top, ’cause the leaves will burn in the sun. You literally have to water from the bottom of the plant.”

Chatham Bars Inn’s fine gardener Pamela Vasques demonstrates how to snip a hydrangea. Ouch!

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The intensity of her love is apparent when she showed Rocca the variety known as Glowing Embers.

Glowing Embers hydrangeas.

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“These are my therapists; I just talk to them every morning,” Vasques said.

“And what do you say?”

“Well, I ask them how they’re doing today, obviously. But I tell ’em if I have a problem or two, and they listen, and they just get healthier and grow!”

Most species originated in Asia. In Europe they ruled during the Victorian Era. They’ve been in America for centuries. George Washington planted them at Mount Vernon.

Mal Condon, who has been growing hydrangeas for 45 years, is known as “The Hydrangea Guy.” “Not hard to figure that one out, eh?

“People say to me all the time, ‘What’s your favorite hydrangea?’ It’s probably the one I’m looking at.”

The former engineer is now the hydrangea curator at the Cape’s Heritage Museums and Gardens.

“We’ve had more crowds here this year, and why not? This is spectacular. This is the best we’ve had in 15 years,” he said.

Condon said they have the largest collection of hydrangeas on the East Coast – more than 150 varieties. Heritage even has a test garden to grow and evaluate new types of hydrangeas.

Condon introduced Rocca to “Froggie,” a variety he’s been working to perfect for 20 years. “This has a very unusual sort of freckled appearance to the individual sepals,” he said. “When you see it fully matured, it’s somewhat frog skin-like, and that’s where the Froggie came from.”

At the North American Hydrangea Test Garden, Mal Condon has been developing a new variety, Froggie. 

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Hydrangeas thrive on the Cape because of its moderate maritime climate.

Rocca asked, “If you live in Arizona and you really like hydrangeas …?”

“You go and buy one in the store and keep it in the house. Extremely low humidity, it’d never make it,” said Condon.

“But Pacific Northwest?”

“Super!”

As summer begins to fade, so will the hydrangeas – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“If we have good summer conditions, we go in what’s called the antique season in the fall,” Condon said. “But it takes on these other hues within the color pattern. Magnificent.”

The different hues of a hydrangea as it fades.

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“Is this like heaven for you?” Rocca asked.

“Oh, absolutely, and then some!” Condon laughed.

     
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Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Carol Ross. 


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