What to do when the hydrangeas stop flowering by July?
I write a lot about the four-generation family women who influenced my gardening approach, but haven’t given enough props to my dad’s mom, a prim garden club flower judge who instilled an appreciation for striving for ideals. Her books of blue ribbons were proof that attention to detail and playing by group rules can pay off.
But she also had some pretty unusual shrubs in her McComb garden, many of which used to be more widely grown but gradually fell out of favor. One thing she emphasized is that it’s good to have dependable summer flowering shrubs for when other plants were too hard to tend in our suffocating humidity.
I was raised with many familiar ones, including shrub roses, crape myrtles, oleander, and uber-fragrant gardenias whose scent, drawn into Mam-maw’s stubbornly non-airconditioned house, would make us kids nearly swoon on sultry summer nights. Still turns me a bit green.
She also had several different althaea, a below-zero hardy hibiscus often called rose of Sharon because it is native to the biblical Plains of Sharon. One was pure white with a splash of red, one was deep rose pink, and the other was lilac purple. We used to catch bumblebees in folded flowers.
As a child I learned that her Abelia was the go-to shrub for butterflies and hummingbirds; I don’t know of another that has so many pollinators. Abelia has clusters of white or pink flowers and can be pruned hard to keep it in bounds (it flowers on new growth); it has several smaller hybrids with variegated or golden leaves, and a Chinese species with much larger flower clusters. All are tough enough to grow unassisted in cemeteries.
Her butterfly bush (Buddleia) was as good an attractor as any, but I was taught to regularly break off faded flower stems to kick-start new flowering growth.
I wish highly-touted summer-flowering hydrangeas lived up to their hype, but even Endless Summer, which flowers nearly all summer up north and in England, shuts down in the heat and drought of our torrid summers; to get them to rebloom, water – a lot. Or grow in containers like most of us do Chinese hibiscus, where they get regular feeding and watering.
Another great potted flowering shrub in my grandmother’s South Mississippi garden was the old-fashioned but freeze-sensitive “yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Brunfelsia). Its flat flowers open as deep violet but gradually fade over three days to lavender and then white, so it always has some of each. You can gamble on it in central and north Mississippi by planting in light shade in a protected corner away from harsh winter winds. Ditto for the unusual red bottlebrush shrub which can freeze in the northern third of the state if we ever have a normal winter.
Had it been available decades ago I’m sure my grandmother would have cherished a large shrubby Little Gem magnolia, which flowers nonstop up until a freeze in the fall.
And I might have shared a rooted leaf pad from my summer-flowering prickly pear cactus; my favorite is a cold hardy thornless species.
Though not technically woody bushes, I still consider large perennial lantanas and ornamental grasses as flowering shrubs. But even if those failed, I still have colorful glass bottle trees to give me summer shrub color.
Main thing is, my garden club grandmother proved that we can enjoy more than a double handful of dependable shrubs that flower into the Dog Days to keep spirits up - without having to actually go outside and fuss with them.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.