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best hydrangeas of now and tomorrow, with dan hinkley

IF SOMEONE SAYS HYDRANGEA, many of us first conjure classic images of big blue moptops, or maybe the paniculata types with their conical white-to-pink-to-tan flowers. So you think you know a hydrangea when you see it? Well, chances are if Daniel Hinkley were asked to describe the genus, his version would be a whole lot more diverse than ours. Dan Hinkley is a longtime plant explorer (that’s him in the HImalayas, below), nurseryman, teacher and gardener. Above all, he says, he’s committed to “above-average garden plants.” I found out from Dan just what, when the subject is hydrangeas, qualifies as above average and even exceptional, and we took a peek into the future of what traits hydrangeas of tomorrow might show off, too. Sneak peek: red flowers, or foliage that’s evergreen or felted or even purple are just some of the standout features we might see more of. Plus: at the bottom of the page, learn about how to visit Dan’s garden undertakings at Heronswood—the former specialty nursery he founded that is now a public garden—and at Windcliff, his home garden, both across Puget Sound from Seattle. Read along as you listen to our conversation on the August 28, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). hydrangea q&a with dan hinkley Q. I guess a little background first: you’re north of Seattle, in the Kingston area? A. We’re north and west of Seattle, so we’re in the west Sound country, looking back across Puget Sound to Seattle. Q. Not a bad view. I think of you all the time because not a month goes by here in my garden in the growing season when I don’t uncover, in the beds or in the compost heap sometimes, one of those turquoise-colored plastic labels from the old Heronswood mail-order nursery that you founded in I think 1987. [Laughter.] A. Yes, it started in 1987, and those turquoise labels with large prices attached to very small plants. Q. Well those plants were good investments, as it turns out, because many of them—as small as they were then—are very big now. [Laughter.] Something went right. So tell us: Heronswood was a nursery, but now it’s something else. [Above photo, a border at Heronswood today.] A. I’m having a wonderful time. It was a nursery from 1987 to 2006, and then it had an off period of six years, where nothing was happening here and the gates were closed. But since 2012 it’s been owned by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Indian Tribe, and I’ve been brought back in as the director, and in charge of its renovation efforts. We have reassembled a staff, and we have a great volunteer base, and we are re-revealing the garden and making it better—not trying to recreate what it was but trying to add a polish and the go forward and put it on good footing for future generations of gardeners to enjoy. Q. So it’s open on Fridays or other days as well? A. We’re open five days a year as a Garden Open, where we have plant sales, but then also every Friday in the growing season and the fourth Saturday of each month. That’s going to increase because our attendance is increasing. Next year we’ll be open every Friday and Saturday during the growing season, and hopefully we’ll be able to add days on going forward. Q. So as promised, we’re going to talk about: I say HyDRAINgea, and you say… A. HyDRAINgea. [Laughter.] Q. I thought you said HyDRANNgea. A. They all refer to the same plant. Q. I’m teasing. [Laughter.] A. It’s just a great genus of plants, and chock full of wonderful species—a greater diversity than most people realize. Q. I know that we have some native American species, like arborescens—which people might know from ‘Anabelle,’ a big white round ball of flowers; a lot of old-fashioned homes have them. And we have quercifolia, the oakleaf, in the Southeastern United States, right? A. Right. Q. And I know there are some Asian species, but you’ve sort of seen the globe. Tell us about the range of where you have seen hydrangeas. A. It’s pretty amazing. As you say just two species in North America—a paucity of species. But as you go south into Mexico, the number of species begins to skyrocket, right into Central America and the northern part of South America. That’s really a hotbed of speciation of Hydrangea. In fact, just last year an additional 15 species of Hydrangea were identified in the mountains of Bolivia and Colombia and Venezuela and Peru, so really our knowledge of the genus in that part of the globe is pretty small. Q. Wow. [Above, H. serratifolia, an evergreen climber from Chile.] A. And it’s also fairly exciting, because these are all represented by climbing species, and always evergreen. Not shrubs or trees, but they’re evergreen climbing species and their colors range from pure white to very, very rich red. And that continues all the way down south to Tierra del Fuego; you can have evergreen climbing hydrangeas all the way to the southern part of Argentina and Chile. So even though in our minds we have, as you mentioned, mopheads and lacecaps and shrubs that we have grown in our gardens for generations in this country, really the lion’s share of the genus is unrecognizable to most gardeners. Q. What about Asia, parts of Asia? Is there a diversity, and what are they like? A. Pretty extraordinary. I have a good number of species in my garden from Taiwan, Vietnam, the northern part of India—Sikkim and the Arunachal Pradesh. Bhutan is certainly a hotbed of speciation in western China, and it radiates out all directions from there. Generally, when you see a Hydrangea in the wild in blossom, even a lay gardener will recognize it as a Hydrangea, but the foliage is quite diverse. Of course the flowers can be across the board as well, but generally speaking the floral format of a Hydrangea is that cluster of fertile flowers that is surrounded by sterile bracts that give that gestalt of the lacecap look. Q. So...

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