Hydrangea Heroes

The year 1823 was a significant year in annals of horticulture. A young, adventurous, German physician set foot on the man-made island of Dejima, a trading post for the Dutch East India Company, just off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. Fresh out of medical school at age twenty-seven, Phillip Franz von Siebold, was looking for a bit of adventure and the Dutch East Indian Company offered him that opportunity as resident physician and scientist in Japan. He was to be the successor to Engelbert Kaempfer and Carl Peter Thunberg, two former resident physicians at Dejima, both also famous plantsman you may recognized from the specific epitaphs on a number Japanese plant species including Larix kaempferi and Berberis thunbergii.  

Herbarium specimen of wild H. paniculata

Essentially closed to all other Western scientists, Siebold excelled as a physician and botanist, while in Japan. His unique abilities as a cataract surgeon (along with his knowledge of and supply of belladonna used for dilating the pupil) gave him a freedom of travel afforded to few foreigners in this isolated country. Between his personal acquisitions and the gifts paid to him in kind for his doctoring and teaching, Siebold amassed over 1000 native Japanese plants in his back yard garden. In amongst these plants was Hydrangea paniculata (wild type) and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ (aka PEE GEE hydrangea), both of which he sent Europe and are still today common landscape plants.

PEE GEE ~ Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora' 

In my twenty-some years as a plant hunter, I’ve had some pretty unique opportunities. One of these was visiting the late Jelena DeBelder in the summer of 1996. We met at Hemelrijk, her family estate near Antwerp, Belgium. As she shuttled us about the grounds in her beat up VW Rabbit, filled with pots, shovels and plants, I soon realized I was in the presence of someone special. Her every word was filled with passion.  With the pride of a mother she introduced us to her hydrangeas: ‘Pink Diamond’, ‘Unique’, The Swan, ‘Burgundy Lace’, ‘White Moth’ and her personal favorite ‘Little Lamb’. “This is a very special plant,” she told us, “Little lambs dancing about in joy. Very special.”  

Jelena DeBelder schooling me on hydrangeas

Soon after I met the renowned plantsman Pieter Zwijnenburg. At the time, Pieter and his wife Anja had a small nursery in Boskoop area of the Netherlands. The “Heronswood of Europe” his nursery offered over 2500 different varieties of trees and shrubs. In his career Pieter has introduced over 50 different new plants. On this particular day he showed us his newest development, a new Hydrangea that would soon be named ‘Limelight’. And just down the road a few miles, on another day, Rein and Mark Bulk showed me their new, early flowering hydrangea that had volunteered in his nursery. In a few years, we’d introduce this one as Quick Fire® Hydrangea. 

Pieter and his wife Anja

Still later and to the south, we and the world came to know Dr. Johan Van Huylenbroeck of the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture. Johan’s outstanding Hydrangea paniculata breeding would give us Mega Mindy®, Pinky Winky® and Bobo®.  

Dr. Johan Van Huylenbroeck with the original Bobo®

Meanwhile in France, Jean Renault was also breeding Hydrangea paniculata which would yield Vanilla Fraise®, aka Vanilla Strawberry™.  

Jean Renault

And back home in Grand Haven, Michigan, while standing on the shoulders of all these giants, I had a hand in the development and introduction of a few good hydrangea paniculata plants as well: Little Lime®, Little Quick Fire®, Pillow Talk®, Fire Light® and Zinfin Doll®.

Zinfin Doll® in our stock block

Next year we'll introduce three, exciting new selections. Fire Light Tidbit is front of the border, dwarf, 2-2.5’ mounded selection with creamy white flowers that take on strawberry pink hues as the summer progresses towards fall.    

Fire Light Tidbit™
Fire Light Tidbit™ 
QuickFire Fab hydrangea is in a class of its own when it comes to color. The delicate, cruciform flowers emerge green, transition to white and then start turning raspberry pink from the bottom up producing a unique two-toned look.

Quick Fire Fab™

Early blooming Quick Fire Fab™ hydrangea

And now, even ‘Limelight’ has gotten better. Limelight Prime™ has stronger stems that eliminate bloom flopping. It has dark, forest green foliage, unlike ‘Limelight that is prone to yellowing with chlorosis. And Limelight Prime™ has predictable autumn flower color. 

Limelight Prime™ Hydrangea
Autumn hues of Limelight Prime® hydrangea

Me oh my, how this once unassuming Japanese hydrangea, introduced over one hundred and fifty-seven years ago, has changed and improved. We now have cultivars with stronger stems that do not flop. We have dwarf selections and early blooming selections. We have green flowers and flowers that age with hues that range from green to bubblegum pink to rich pomegranate red. We have big flowers and small flowers, full flowers and lacy flowers.

It has been over a one hundred and fifty-seven years since Pee Gee hydrangea was introduced by Dr. von Siebold. Plant breeding and selection continues to improve our plants, generation after generation and we should all be proud of the role we play in this evolution. Sure I know, it’s disruptive, but all change is. And yes, along the journey there have been some plants that should not have be introduced. No one is perfect. Not all of Apple’s product launches have been a success. Remember the Newton? In fact, most all of their product introductions are no longer sold! Does this mean that Apple should slow down or stop innovating? Of course not. We are living in the Golden Age of technology. We are also living in the Golden Age of plant breeding. Buckle up and enjoy it! It going to get even better.