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NZ Gardener - 2021-10-01

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heavenly hydrangeas

PLANTS

“I’ve traversed the globe to see hydrangeas growing in the wild but I still love the common old moptops the best,” says Glyn Church. Back in 1990, I made a journey to England to see friends and family, and naturally found time to look at plants and gardens. In Forde Abbey near Chard in Somerset, I found three fabulous plants, Hydrangeas quercifolia ‘Snowflake’ with spiralled double flowers, another cultivar ‘Snow Queen’ with elegant single flowers and to top it off, an evergreen hydrangea called Dichroa versicolor. As I happened to have a plant import permit and they happened to have plants for sale, well I couldn’t resist bringing a few home with me. I still think they are three of the best garden plants we have available and I’m not even a tiny bit biased because I imported them! Years later, my wife Gail and I met and stayed with the man who discovered ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Snow Queen’. American Eddie Aldridge made so much money from plants, he donated his 30-acre private garden to the city of Hoover, and now Aldridge Garden in Alabama is treasured by locals. A few days later, we saw the two wild hydrangeas native to the Appalachians. A dust dry cattle track on the outskirts Somerville near Memphis, Tennessee is the only place in the US where both their native hydrangeas grow side by side. I scoured the roadside for miles searching for natural hybrids but there was none to be found. The other American species we saw that day is Hydrangea arborescens with pale hairy leaves and white lacecap flowers. Here in New Zealand we’re familiar with the gorgeous white pompom cultivar H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’. It has a strange habit, being rather weak when young and each year the stems die back, even to ground level. Over the years it builds up strength to form a thicket of strong stems. I’ve seen head high robust specimens in the States and ours at home are now waist to chest high. From Memphis we moved on to Georgia where we were hosted by Mike Dirr, hydrangea breed and plantsman extraordinaire. He has fields of seedling hydrangeas on trial, trying to find the perfect plant. There are fabulous new colours of hydrangeas on the market in the US and Europe, but quarantining of plants here in New Zealand is expensive and time consuming, so most will never show up here. We had our own quarantine house at home up until 2007 and during the previous decade brought in many fantastic mopheads including top reds and pinks for gardens and for cut flower production. One of these was the astonishingly different ‘Bloody Marvellous’ with dark burnished leaves and cherry red to aubergine flowers. Its real name is ‘Merveille Sanguine’ but I thought the English translation would improve sales! It’s also known as ‘Raspberry Crush’ for those who might blush at my suggestion. The cultivars I imported mostly came from England and France, especially Corinne and Robert Mallet who have the best, most extensive named collection of hydrangeas in the world at their Shamrock Garden in Varengeville sur Mer near Dieppe. We spent a fabulous three days with them touring their collection and other nearby gardens. Strangely, English plant breeders have traditionally ignored hydrangeas. It’s like an unwritten rule. It seems the first Asian hydrangeas went to France via Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and from there on, France became the centre for hydrangeas. To this day they still call them hortensia and a plant fanatic friend named his only daughter Hortense. Corinne named a hydrangea after me and I attempted to change it into French as L’église Vallée (Glyn is Welsh for valley like the Scottish glen) but I was too late as she had already registered the name. Hydrangea serrata ‘Glyn Church’ was originally a mystery plant given to me by Bernie Hollard of Hollard Gardens in Taranaki. The mophead flowers open cream, then turn white-pink-red-red wine (or green in shade). I sent some cuttings to Corinne in France and she in turn sent cuttings to experts in Japan, the home of H. serrata. All agreed they had never seen a variety like it. (By the way it’s not the done thing to name a plant after yourself, but if someone else does it, then one has to gracefully accept the honour.) Corinne has a habit of deflecting attention away from herself, and sometimes on to me. In her hydrangea newsletters, she often asks if anyone has this or that variety, so she can extend her collection. I was talking to the late Os Blumhardt, nurseryman and plant breeder from Whangārei and famous for breeding vireya rhododendrons and magnolias such as ‘Star Wars’. Knowing his fascination with all plants I casually asked if he had any hydrangeas? When he moved from New Plymouth to Whangārei in the 1950s, he took a complete set of the Duncan & Davies hydrangeas with him. He planted them out in alphabetical order, and tended them but never propagated any. He gave me cuttings of each variety and I in turn sent some of each to Corinne in France. There were eight or nine lost varieties which are now back in the system and Os was the hero, but Corinne used this as an excuse to deflect attention on to me when 80 hydrangea experts were touring her collection. By the way, these old varieties Os saved are now available from Woodleigh Nursery in Taranaki. While in Europe, we made two other pilgrimages. One was to see the famous Vasterival Garden, home of Princess Sturdza with over 9000 different plants. She and I got along famously and talked plants all afternoon. Then Gail and I travelled to Belgium to see the de Belder Arboretum called Hemelrijk, created by Jelena and Robert de Belder. Both are no longer with us but we were thrilled to get a personal tour of the garden with their children, Danny and Barbara. Jelena had spent an enormous amount of time creating new plants, notably Hamamelis hybrids and Hydrangea paniculata cultivars such as ‘Barbara’ and ‘Little Lamb’. H. paniculata hails from Japan and is an elegant open shrub with conical flowers, sometimes solid cones of sterile flowers and sometimes open and lacy such as the cultivar ‘Kyushu’. This one was named by a local plant fanatic, Lady Anne Berry of Hackfalls Arboretum near Gisborne, someone who always had an eye for a good garden plant. We were in Europe for the first international hydrangea conference held at the University of Ghent. My role was to extol the virtues of hydrangeas in New Zealand. Mal our American hydrangea fanatic friend gave me the clue – show lots of big blue mopheads, no-one will believe how blue hydrangeas can be in New Zealand; and show lots of big plants because they don’t grow as big in the US or northern Europe. Mal has been coming to New Zealand every second year since 2000 and insists we have the best climate in the world for our favourite genus. One of the interesting people I met at the conference was

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