Hydrangeas are a mainstay of many Connecticut gardens. From mophead hydrangeas with their huge, round flowers seen in endless shades of blue, to the flatter and more refined flowers of lacecap hydrangeas, to the old-fashioned Peegee hydrangea trees dripping with layers of pink conical blossoms in the fall, it’s not difficult to find hydrangeas of all shapes, sizes and colors thriving in Connecticut gardens. With one notable exception, the climbing hydrangea.
Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris, commonly called the climbing hydrangea, is a little known deciduous vine that deserves a place in every garden. Considered by many in the horticultural industry to be the finest climbing vine, for some reason, climbing hydrangea is still relatively difficult to find in local gardens.
Perhaps one reason climbing hydrangea is not more widely planted is that it is slow to get established. Growing little during its first several years, climbing hydrangea demands a level of patience many of today’s gardeners are not prepared to offer. If you are looking for a vine to quickly cover a fence or trellis, this is not the one for you. But if you are prepared to invest some time, but not a lot of effort, and are able to patiently wait for climbing hydrangea to put down its roots before it will even flower, your rewards will be many.
Climbing hydrangea is one of the few flowering vines that grows in partial to full shade. Reaching heights of 40’+ and preferring moist, well-draining acidic soil that is rich in organic matter, climbing hydrangea is virtually carefree. Relatively drought-tolerant — definitely something you cannot say about other hydrangeas — climbing hydrangea will demand more water when grown in locations with more sun than shade.
The flowers of climbing hydrangea resemble those of a lacecap hydrangea, just a bit fuzzier. Opening in early summer and lasting for over a month, the fertile, frothy center is surrounded by showy, sterile sepals. The sepals start out white and fade to cream and eventually to brown. The color change adds to the vine’s overall ornamental value.
The heart-shaped leaves are a glossy, deep green and are not bothered by insects or fungus. Deer do nip at the leaves and developing flowers, so in my garden, flowers often start just above ‘deer height’. Adding another layer of interest are the lateral branches which can grow out from the main vine several feet. This gives the plant an undulating, cascading effect that most other climbing vines simply do not offer.
Mature plants feature cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark that is not only handsome but also offers winter interest. Climbing hydrangea scales structures with clinging rootlets so it can grasp on to any rough surface and does not need to be trained. It does need a strong and sturdy structure to climb, like a tree, fence or wall.
While climbing hydrangea is unforgettable when grown against the side of a building, I have also seen it used as a groundcover. Clambering over rock walls or down steep, shady embankments, when grown purely as a groundcover it can eventually cover 150+ square feet.