A Hydrangea by Any Other Name

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Hydrangeas are staple companions in the Southern garden. Books, articles, and poems have been written in ode to these graceful plants that bring presence and stature to even the most challenging corner. Breeding companies have been developing more and more cultivars (i.e. “cultivated varieties”) in search for the “perfect” hydrangea, and they have really gotten close to perfection on more than a few of them. I was sitting in a symposium recently and a breeder friend of mine introduced his new bright magenta lacecap hydrangea with dark, dark purple-green foliage. The room full of plant nerds gasped and “ooh”ed in delight. And then he addressed the hydrangea-equivalent of the elephant in the room: the horticulture market still thinks the mophead hydrangea is superior to the lacecap hydrangea.

“Mophead” versus “Lacecap”

What do we mean when we say “mophead” and “lacecap”? In this rare instance, horticulturists are trying to use common words to describe a plant! Most folks are always thinking about the species Hydrangea macrophylla when they think of hydrangeas, but there are so many more and much more diversity.

The mophead hydrangeas are characterized by a plethora of sterile “flowers”, which are botanically bracts, that are arranged in a rounded mound, an upright cone or trailing cluster. The name is more indicative of a hairstyle than a mop! Sometimes there are fertile flowers within the cluster of sterile ones, but sometimes humans have selected for a completely sterile panicle. These are also the favorites for their chameleon-like performance under different soil pH levels (i.e. pink means alkaline soils and blue means acidic soil). There are a few species known for this type of flower: Hydrangea paniculata (Native to Asia), Hydrangea quercifolia (Native to North America), Hydrangea macrophylla* (Native to Asia) and Hydrangea arboresences (Native to North America).

Mophead Hydrangea_Phot by Amanda Wilkins

Mophead Hydrangea_photo by Amanda Wilkins

The lacecaps, by contrast, look as if the inflorescence (i.e. “cluster of floral parts) is a delicate patch of intricate lace surrounded by a circlet of sterile bracts. The “lace” is really hundreds of tiny fertile flowers and the bracts are the billboard signs for the pollinators to let them know there is nectar and pollen to be had. There are several species with lacecap inflorescences: Hydrangea macrophylla* (Native to Asia), Hydrangea radiata (Native to the Appalachian Mountains), Hydrangea aspera (Native to Asia), and Hydrangea involucrata (Native to Asia).

A Case for the Lacecap

I argue that the lacecap hydrangeas are just as, if not more so, beneficial to your garden as mophead types. The presentation and presence of the fertile flowers like those in the lacecap make them better pollinator-supporting plants than the mopheads. Many mopheads have no nectar or pollen resources, which are what pollinating insects are looking for. The way the fertile flowers, where the nectar and pollen are, are flat and easier to get to also serves a greater diversity of pollinating insects.

Lacecape_Mobile AL_Photo by Amanda Wilkins

Lacecap_Mobile AL – Photo by Amanda Wilkins

Beyond the resources for wildlife, the graceful, fine texture of the lacecaps is beautiful in the landscape in a way a big, dense ball of flowers isn’t. Many of the lacecap species and varieties have multiple colors within their inflorescences and provide a different color effect than bold tone of the mopheads.

Human History of Plant Breeding

Humans have been selecting hydrangeas for the garden for thousands of years. Gardeners in Japan and China have been enjoying these plants as part of their plant palette and Westerners were quick to recognize the beauty of these incredible plants in the last few centuries. From those earlier shrubs, there are now modern cultivars with larger inflorescences, more striking colors and constitutions that can handle the myriad of growing conditions in our modern world. Most of the major shrubs breeding companies have a Hydrangea breeding program, and they’re always looking for the next best thing. Just go to your local retail nursery. Millions of dollars each year alone are spent on Hydrangeas and the modern companies know it. The humble lacecap is overdue for more garden love.

Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.


American Hydrangea Society

Wikipedia – Hydrangea

Blue Bunny™ Bracted Hydrangea

NC State Plant Toolbox for Hydrangea

JC Raulston Arboretum for Hydrangeas

Hydrangeas in the Garden- Plant Toolbox

Dr. Tom Ranney- profile

Dr. Tom Ranney- spotlights

NC State Plant Breeder Wins Prestigious Scott Medal