This whole hydrangea color thingie



If there’s any plant most gardeners love, I’m betting that hydrangeas are right up there with daylilies, rudbeckia, hosta, and echinicaea. I heart hydrangeas; as a shade gardener, they are my backbone, my go-to, my stand-by when other late summer plants fail me.So why are the plant companies trying to ruin hydrangeas for everyone? During Garden Walk, a few weeks past, this is what I heard:

Wow, I’ve never seen such a deep pink hydrangea.

What do you put in the soil to make them that pink?

I have that hydrangea but it’s not nearly that pink.


The fact is, I do not apply anything to my hydrangeas. The fact is that I only buy named cultivars that are meant to stay a certain color. I just don’t get the adding this or that to create color. I have Limelight (above), which stays white to light green; Blushing Bride which stays white to light pink, and then I have my my favorites: Alpenglow,(top) which goes from pink to light brown and Forever Pink, which is just luscious beyond compare (if you give it some light).


Why make gardeners jump through hoops, adding lime or iron sulphate to create blue or pink? And why sell hydrangeas that won’t ever be either color, just a washed-out lavender?

I don’t get it.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Totally agree.In my Hydrangea Bed various Hydrangeas do their own color thing.Some white,some pink,some blue,some limegreen.It makes that Flowerbed more beautiful.For Groundcover I planted Plumbago.For height a PeeGee Standard.Just love it!

  2. Funny, I was going to start my comment with “Totally agree,” too. So I will. Clients are always asking me how to change colors and my honest response would be “Buy the color you want, for crissakes!” Anyway, from what I read it takes lots of applications to make only minor changes in color. Way too much bother.
    And what’s the cultivar in the bottom photo?

  3. Totally agree. I garden with oakleaves, a blue lacecap I bought for the FOLIAGE (it’s variegated) and I covet a Pinky Winky for the red stems and flower variation. Just let the darn things be what they want to be. My friend has pink, blue and lavender on one plant, and we both think it looks fabulous.

  4. kim, you have no idea how I long for one with variegated foliage. Susan, dunno what it is–saw it at the zoo! But it typifies the uncertainly colored ones I personally don’t care for.

  5. Here in California hydrangeas aren’t planted that much.
    Our long dry mediterranean climate makes it a poor choice for most locations and a strain on our water bill to keep this plant looking good.
    It’s usually someone from the mid west or the north east who has moved here and who feels the need to plant something from their former home roots.
    These are the same non gardeners who demand from their gardeners that they have deep blue , hot pink or chartreuse green hydrangeas to match their interior decoration.

    People want what they want, and as long as they are willing to pay for it , it is part of a professional gardeners service to provide it so long as it isn’t causing harm to the surrounding environment.

  6. I visited a wholesale hydrangea nursery this past Thursday. As the owner took us around, we commented on all the fabulous flowers, asking what this one was or that one. We were surprised to learn that one with pink blooms was a form with “blue” in its name (CRS has struck, I can’t remember its name). What was even more surprising is that our soil is acidic clay – the flowers should have been blue, not pink, proving that plants do have minds of their own and we should go with the flow, not fight it.

  7. I, umm, totally agree? I have mostly lacecaps and oak leaf, so the color is consistent, but I do have three mopheads that I grew from cuttings from a plant at my old house (I’m pretty sure it was “Nikko Blue”) Those are different colors–one is dark pink, one is light blue, and the third is that lavender in Elizabeth’s last photo. I like the variety–and I LOVE how easy they are to propogate.

  8. My hydrangea is pretty big and sits in front of the gutter runoff from my garage. The last couple years it was pink/purple, this year it’s blue. I find it fascinating as it is, and never thought to try to make it be something specific. It has sort of merged with a large white rosebush and the colors match nicely no matter what the hydrangeas mood is.

  9. To play a little devil’s advocate… all gardening is artificial. We clip off wayward branches of shrubs, train tomato plants up into elaborate cage structures, water plants that would not otherwise receive enough rainfall to continue to exist in our gardens on their own, deadhead annuals and perennials alike to encourage rebloom… so why not add a little something to the soil if you prefer your ‘Nikko Blue’ blooms to be cobalt instead of cotton candy? I don’t really see much of a difference there.

    That said, I have one hydrangea, an oakleaf, because my dry garden won’t support the mopheads without additional watering that I refuse to do. And when I did have a wet garden where mopheads grew, I never bothered to try to change their color… just not my thing.

  10. Even a named cultivar in the macrophylla species will change color in soils of high or low pH and depending on the amount of aluminum available in the soil. That said, I agree, celebrate the uniqueness of your garden soil, the terroir of your garden.

  11. H. macrophylla is to hydrangeas as hybrid teas are to roses. There are too many other better varieties and species to grow than to bother with macrophylla.

    Especially in a northern climate where buds are apt to get frozen or burned off, unpredictable rain can render them useless in a dry season.

    They are only slightly better than big leaf (H. arborescens)

    The (hates blue flowers anyway) TROLL

  12. I have two Nikko Blues and toss old coffee filters on the soil around them. They’re blue cultivars but adding the acidic coffee grounds really has sharpened and intensified the blue. I’m not regular with the coffee grounds, another thing I did was bury a handful of old nails close to the roots. I also have a pink hydrangea that stays pink. Imagine that.

  13. All the hydrangeas in MY yard have become deer fodder. Actually, this is ok with me since the plants are such water hogs and beings my garden is in N California, they want water all the time. Saw lots of beautiful dark blue hydrangeas in Portland & Corvallis, Oregon last month.

  14. As Laynee mentioned, the color of hydrangea blossoms is determined by the amount of aluminum present in the soil. High pH soils prevent this aluminum from being available, and in these soils the blossoms tend to be pink to red. Lower pH soils tend to make blossoms be blue to purple. Neutral soils produce lavenders and mauves. Even hydrangeas with the word pink or blue in the name can change color, and just because it was pink when you bought it does not mean it will stay thay way. White flowered hydrangeas will always be white. Oakleaf, climbing, smooth and panicled (like Limelight) hydrangeas all have white flowers, although some will age to pinks and rusty reds. This variation in color is one reason I like them so much. I grow about 15 varieties and have never tried to change the color – I love whatever color they are and all of the colors blend together well.

  15. Eliz, I don’t know the name (or hardiness) of my variegated one – I bought it at a neighborhood plant sale. It’s something like Lemon something, but the flowers are supposed to be blue. I’ve never seen flowers because the rabbits and deer ate it to the ground over the winter. I’d be glad to try to propagate a cutting for you, and maybe Susan can get it to you next year? Just let me know.

  16. TC, the coffee grounds thing!!! Brilliant! Totally in keeping with my gardening style. ( I neutralize the soil around my lilacs and clematis every spring with wood ash from my fireplace. They seem happy.)

    That said, my Endless Summer hydrangeas sit beneath giant, ancient Norway spruce that shed a needle mulch. I mean, could the soil possibly get more acidic? Yet some of them are blue and some are pink.

  17. For me—I can’t iamgine going to the effort to color shift hydrangeas in my highly acidic soil. That said–my favorite hydrangea—I have one rather pitiful macrophylla is my huge and profusely blooming H. paniculata (Pee Geet). It takes full sun here in central Alabama and keeps on blooming.

  18. Oh hooray, another use for coffee grounds in the garden! Thanks for that tip. I have one huge (unkown provenance) hydrangea bush I transplanted from Boston which only ever gets huge lush leaves and maybe one or two blooms (which look like a lavendar lacecap). Does it need food? More sun? Anyone?

    I also have a Pinky Winky (I think? some sort of paniculata) that was labeled “Forever Pink” , sold marked way down at Lowe’s which is now doing great. My others are young and growing Ebay purchases; one has flowered its first year, named merely “pale pink”–HUGE bloom, gorgeous gradation of color. I am not bothered if the plant does not produce the prmised color as long as I can get some color out of it.

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