"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Hydrangeas on Black Backgrounds (and Hunting for Hortense)

Hydrangeas on Black Backgrounds (and Hunting for Hortense)

From A Complete Guide to Orchard and Garden, Volume 12, published in 1890 by J. T. Lovett:

“The hydrangea, with good reason, has always been a favorite inmate of the garden. It is true, that in the old days we had only Hydrangea Hortensia; but it had several places in the garden and a big one in the heart….

“On Long Island it was seldom winter-killed, and it may now be considered a hardy plant in the latitude of New York City, except in an unusually cold winter. The plant itself is rarely winter-killed. The buds on last season’s grown, however, are sometimes either killed or badly injured as to destroy the bloom; for it is on this growth that we depend for flowers. It was a more or less common practice, therefore, to drive stakes around the plant on the approach of winter, and cover the plants loosely with dead leaves when the ground began to freeze hard, but not before….

“With a simple protection of this kind, all the Japanese hydrangeas might be grown considerably north of New York.”

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“The garden hydrangea was named Hortensia by Philibert Commerson, who accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville on his voyage around the world in 1766 (see ‘Bougainvillea‘). It is usually supposed that the name “hortensia” was after Mlle. Hortense, daughter of the prince of Nassau; the latter had joined Bougainville’s expedition in order to escape his creditors. But it is worth noting that the woman named Jeanne Baret, who had sailed on the voyage disguised as a boy (called Jean), changed her name to Hortense when she settled in France. We will never really know why. Anyway, in 1830 the name was changed to Hydrangea macrophylla (large leaved), by which it is now known.”

Here are the last of the summer 2021 hydrangeas, at least from me. I took a few of my favorite images from the previous three posts and painted the backgrounds black.

With the first day of autumn already in the past and the onset (perhaps temporarily) of some cooler temperatures here, I have only a few more summer flower photos (of lantana) to work on, then will go I-spying-with-my-little-eyes on some fall color hunting expeditions. I haven’t decided yet where that will take me, though I’m sure Oakland Cemetery and the nearby Grant Park will make the list, but I’ll also probably add the Atlanta History Center (which has a large woodland area surrounding the property); Fernbank Forest, an old growth urban wildwood not far from my home behind Fernbank Museum; and the humongous, recently opened, 280-acre Westside Park (whose Bellwood Quarry was used as a filming location for several episodes of The Walking Dead).

I selected the quotes at the top of this post after poking around on Google Books for references to hydrangeas in 19th-century publications. The first one (from a long-running gardening journal published in the mid- to-late-1800s) interested me by being situated in New York City and New York State, which — even in the far northern and short-summer part of the state I’m originally from — has gardens with giant hydrangeas blooming from late spring to early fall. A testament, I think, to the hydrangea’s hardiness and its ability to adapt to and tolerate a wide range of weather and soil conditions that it does so well in a region where summer lasts about twenty minutes.

That quote also mentioned “Hydrangea Hortensia” — which I knew to be an early hydrangea name, one that’s still not uncommonly used to describe hydrangeas, especially the large mophead varieties. As I have written about before, our gardens are populated with plants and flowers discovered and named during the 1800s and early 1900s, and hydrangeas are no exception. I started digging into the source of the “Hortensia” name variation and quickly fell into a Tiny History Rabbit Hole (should I trademark that phrase?) and found that while the story had similar characteristics wherever I read about it, it was not exactly clear which “Hortense” (referred to in the second quote above as “Mlle. Hortense, daughter of the prince of Nassau”) was the actual Hortensia Hortense.

Several hours and many Hortenses later, I landed on Hortense van Nassau from 1771, asked Google to translate that web page from Dutch to English, and had something I’d already expected more-or-less confirmed: the typical reference to “Hortensia” as named after Hortense de Beauharnais — she of Napoleon-adjacent breeding and briefly a Dutch queen — was unlikely since she wasn’t born until 15-20 years after Commerson dubbed hydrangeas with their early European name. Commerson’s Hortense was more likely the daughter of Karl Heinrich von Nassau-Siegen, who did join the Bougainville-Commerson expedition and was the dude “escaping his creditors” by spiriting himself away with the plant explorers. That dear Karl was a fortune-teller apparently didn’t include actually earning (or, I suppose, inheriting) a fortune. (Note to self: if you disappear into the woods for a few weeks, you’ll still have to pay your mortgage.)

Haha! I spent most of my Friday on this research … and of Hortenses and Hortensias you now know everything I know, which may or may not be enough.

My previous hydrangea posts for 2021 are:

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (1 of 2)

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (2 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (1 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (2 of 2)

Pink Mophead Hydrangeas (Five Variations)

Big Blue (and Black and White) Hydrangea Blooms

Thirteen Hydrangeas

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


    1. Dale

      I love those old nature and gardening journals I keep finding; seems like a lot of time and attention was directed toward publishing gardening advice. I like the writing style and — since photography was still new and not as prevalent as it is today — the use of sketches and line drawings to illustrate the pages.

      As for the northern hydrangeas, I think they might do even better once Wooly Bear Plant Blankets become a thing!


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