The Complete Guide to French Hydrangeas

We can't get enough of these seductive blooms. Here's how to choose, plant and care for French hydrangeas.

French Hydrangeas
In this Macon, Georgia garden, bluehydrangea macrophylla set a stunning path to a table simply set with fresh cut blooms. Photo: Ralph Lee Anderson

Picking out hydrangea macrophylla is a lot like ordering iced tea. You're going to have to make a decision: Sweet or unsweet? Mophead or lacecap? There's no right or wrong answer; it's all about personal taste. Hydrangea macrophylla, also called bigleaf hydrangeas, have blooms that are categorized as mopheads or lacecaps. And like iced tea—sweet or unsweet—both are Southern staples.

Mopheads are the most popular. Coveted for their voluptuous blooms, ranging in size from as small as a baseball to bigger than a cantaloupe, they fill the summer border with heavenly shades of blue, pink, and white the way no other flowering shrub can. Because they lose their leaves in winter, it's a good idea to sandwich them between evergreens, such as camellias and low-growing azaleas or mondo grass.

Lacecaps may be more subtle, but they are equally stunning when in bloom. Their flower heads are slightly domed and ringed with delicate fertile florets, and they beckon bees and butterflies to the garden. Like mopheads, their flowers float atop broad, bright green, deciduous leaves. While mopheads may be showier, lacecaps are sublimely elegant. Showcase drifts of these ethereal blooms in woodland settings with high shade, and combine with sweeps of ferns and hostas.

Can the two flower types be mixed in the garden? Absolutely! Plant them just as Tyler and Byrd Garland did in their Macon, Georgia, garden. Use showy mopheads in the back and delicate lacecaps in front, where their intricate flowers will be appreciated.

How To Select The Best Hydrangea Macrophylla

When buying French hydrangeas, look for more than just pretty flowers. Choose a full plant with equal branching on all sides. In late spring and early summer, the stems should be covered with fat buds or flower heads that are ready to open—or opening. Leaves should be bright green and not drooping (an indicator that the plant may not have been watered regularly).

Where To Plant Hydrangea Macrophylla

French hydrangeas love moist, well-drained soil, morning sun, and light afternoon shade. Water as soon as you get them home, saturating the soil in the pot. Before planting, play with the placement. Most French hydrangeas can be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart, but check the tag to see how wide your selection will grow. Dig a hole that is two to three times as wide as the pot but the same depth. Remove the plant from its container, and set it in the center of the hole. Gently loosen the sides of the root-ball with your fingers. Fill the hole with a mixture of half original soil and half compost. Mulch and water regularly to help establish your plant. If you buy a repeat bloomer, it's important to water, feed, and remove spent blossoms regularly to encourage new flowers.

When To Prune Hydrangea Macrophylla

French hydrangeas that flower once, such as 'Nikko Blue,' bloom on last year's growth. Prune just after flowering in summer. Repeat-blooming French hydrangeas, such as 'Blushing Bride' and 'Dooley,' flower on both old and new growth. These can be pruned almost anytime.

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