Hydrangea (//; common names hydrangea or hortensia) is a genus of 70-75 species of flowering plants native to southern and eastern Asia (China, Japan, Korea, the Himalayas, and Indonesia) and the Americas. By far the greatest species diversity is in eastern Asia, notably China, Japan, and Korea. Most are shrubs 1 to 3 meters tall, but some are small trees, and others lianas reaching up to 30 m (98 ft) by climbing up trees. They can be either deciduous or evergreen, though the widely cultivated temperate species are all deciduous.
Having been introduced to the Azores, H. macrophylla is now very common, particularly on Faial, which is known as the “blue island” due to the vast number of hydrangeas present on the island.
Species in the related genus Schizophragma, also in Hydrangeaceae, are also often known as hydrangeas. Schizophragma hydrangeoides and Hydrangea petiolaris are both commonly known as climbing hydrangeas.
There are two flower arrangements in hydrangeas. Mophead flowers are large round flowerheads resembling pom-poms or, as the name implies, the head of a mop. In contrast, lacecap flowers bear round, flat flowerheads with a center core of subdued, fertile flowers surrounded by outer rings of showy, sterile flowers. The flowers of some rhododendrons can appear similar to those of some hydrangeas, but Rhododendron (including azalea) is in a different order.
Cultivation and uses
Hydrangeas are popular ornamental plants, grown for their large flowerheads, with Hydrangea macrophylla being by far the most widely grown with over 600 named cultivars, many selected to have only large sterile flowers in the flowerheads. Some are best pruned on an annual basis when the new leaf buds begin to appear. If not pruned regularly, the bush will become very ‘leggy’, growing upwards until the weight of the stems is greater than their strength, at which point the stems will sag down to the ground and possibly break. Other species only flower on ‘old wood’. Thus new wood resulting from pruning will not produce flowers until the following season.
Hydrangeas are moderately toxic if eaten, with all parts of the plant containing cyanogenic glycosides. Hydrangea paniculata is reportedly sometimes smoked as an intoxicant, despite the danger of illness and/or death due to the cyanide.
In Japan, ama-cha,甘茶 meaning sweet tea, is another herbal tea made from Hydrangea serrata, whose leaves contain a substance that develops a sweet taste (phyllodulcin). For the fullest taste, fresh leaves are crumpled, steamed, and dried, yielding dark brown tea leaves. Ama-cha is mainly used for kan-butsu-e (the Buddha bathing ceremony) on April 8 every year—the day thought to be Buddha’s birthday in Japan. Ama-cha is poured over a statue of Buddha in the ceremony and served to people in attendance. A legend has it that on the day Buddha was born, nine dragons poured Amrita over him; ama-cha is substituted for Amrita in Japan.
In Korean tea, Hydrangea serrata (hangul:산수국 hanja:山水菊) is used for an herbal tea called sugukcha (수국차) or ilsulcha (이슬차).
The pink hydrangea has risen in popularity all over the world, but especially in Asia. Pink hydrangeas have many different meanings, but generally mean, “You are the beat of my heart,” as described by the celebrated Asian florist Tan Jun Yong, where he was quoted saying, “The light delicate blush of the petals reminds me of a beating heart, while the size could only match the heart of the sender!”
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