Hydrangea The Swan (a modern fairy tale a la Hans Christian Andersen)

Posted By on Aug 11, 2006 |


Gardening must be the last best refuge of optimists.

In what other endeavour do you hear quite reasonable people say, "It looks a little sparse now, but in five or ten years . . . "  Or spend an entire weekend digging in the garden, only to finish the task with the satisfaction of seeing . . . a lot of bare soil, without the promise of a green shoot for six months or so.  (Bulbs may be easy, but they aren’t quick.)

449991 Sometimes even fast-growing perennials and shrubs take a few seasons to shine, a lesson I learnt the hard way when Customer Service called me last week to settle a dispute about the naming of Hydrangea ‘The Swan.’

Apparently customers have been asking what on earth is swan-like about this Hydrangea paniculata hybrid. And our ladies in Customer Service, ever resourceful, have offered a range of responses:

1. The blooms are white. (Brilliant; full marks for simplicity.)

2. The petals are much larger than those of other Hydrangeas . . . the same way a swan is a very large bird. (Well . . . half credit for effort, perhaps.)

3. The enormous bloom trusses lean over a bit toward the tip, like a swan elegantly inclining its neck.  (Right — no more caffeine after 10 a.m. in Customer Service, full stop.)

The real reason, it turns out, is that The Swan begins its life as . . . have you already guessed, then? . . . an ugly duckling. As a young shrub, this quick-growing Hydrangea is about as rangy and off-kilter as they come. (With any luck nobody in Customer Service has suggested that the plant’s silhouette looks like a swan flapping its wings. That might be uncomfortably close to the truth.)

Mind you, like most ugly ducklings, The Swan offers plenty of hints about its true merit. It flowers from an early age, and the blooms are truly spectacular, with petals 5 times the size of other Hydrangeas. It is hardy straight through zone 4, and not just able to thrive but determined to bloom —  when the inevitable freakishly late spring frost nips back every bud, a lush second set will arise in late summer on new wood.

Yet a 2- or 3-year-old Hydrangea Swan is an ungainly thing. If it could move, it would be flailing.

But if you hang on for a season or two, developing a convincing story for garden visitors about The Swan’s gangly appearance ("The wheelbarrow toppled right over on top of it, flattening the entire plant; we thought we’d lost it . . . "), this shrub will suddenly fill out, straighten up, and sail to victory. Where once there were random branches of varying lengths, abruptly there will be a bushy fullness that resolves itself into elegant layers. Where once there was a shrub appearing in dire need of a good shearing, now there will be a broad, fat, clever plant that will drive garden visitors to envy. And that faint rustling noise you hear? –It’s the sound of baggies being opened inside purses, as your guests surreptitiously reach for their Swiss army knives and perform a little illicit plant propagation.

Whatever you do, don’t stop them from stealing cuttings. Think what fun it will be to visit their gardens in a few years and stare in puzzlement at their unlovely young Swans, declaring, "I can’t imagine what you’re doing wrong."