Great substitutes for hydrangea
Everybody loves hydrangeas, and so do I. These popular plants are featured in garden magazines, bouquets and nurseries for Mother’s Day. Unfortunately, in Santa Fe they are not a good plant to put into our gardens. Our soil is too alkaline, the spring weather too unpredictable, and water too scarce. As a substitute for hydrangeas, I suggest three shrubs that have multi-seasonal interest; feed birds, butterflies, and bees; and are appropriate for our climate (all are hardy in Zone 6b) and soil.
First, the red twig dogwood ( Cornus sericea) provides year-round interest. These can grow seven feet tall by eight feet wide and should be planted in partial shade. Red twig (aka red osier) dogwoods can be kept smaller and more colorful with judicious thinning and trimming. They require moderate, consistent watering. In spring they have small white flowers that form flat clusters. The flowers are succeeded by white berries that provide food for the birds. “The fall foliage can pick up hints of rose or gold,” according to garden writer David Beaulieu. The foliage is deciduous, giving way to red bark in winter.
Second, the fernbush ( Chamaebatiaria millefolium) grows to seven feet tall by seven feet wide. It requires full sun and moderate watering but can be very drought-tolerant when mature. Fernbush leaves are fern-like, silvery gray in color, and distinctly aromatic. The white, 5-petal flower occurs on a cone-shaped inflorescence and blooms from early to mid-sum- mer; these blossoms are attractive to bees, wasps, and butterflies. In winter “the many branched, red shaggy bark of the fernbush provides textural interest for your garden. The flower cones can be pruned in autumn but are interesting if left to dry in the winter,” said Jeanne Gozigian of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.
Finally, the snowball viburnum ( Viburnum opulus sterilis) is visually similar to a hydrangea. In Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, Michael A. Dirr writes, “The sterile, semi-snowball two to three-inch diameter, white, carnation-like flowers last two to three weeks.” It can grow 15 feet tall by nine to 12 feet wide. It can be planted in the sun or partial shade and needs moderate, supplemental water. The dark green leaves are deeply veined and have wine-red fall color. The doublefile viburnum ( Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum) is similar in size, hardiness, and needs. It has two- to six-inch flower cymes (similar to lace cap hydrangea) that result in cherry-red fruits, which are a favorite food of birds in late winter.
Fortunately, there are many shrubs more appropriate for Santa Fe than the hydrangea. They tolerate alkaline soil, have multi-season interest, feed animals, birds, and insects, and are low to moderatewater users. With so many options, you may find that you are not yearning for hydrangeas after all!
WendyWilson was born and raised in Denver. She started gardening with her father, who loved to plant in very straight lines. Wendy has been rebelling against straight-line planting for 50 years. She has gardened in Denver, Albuquerque, Chapel Hill, Bloomington, and Bethlehem. She completed theMaster Gardener certification class in 2016 and loves living and gardening in Santa Fe.