I am at the moment admiring a magnificent hydrangea which is in full bloom and in full view from where I am sitting at home.
It is tempting to think that the name ‘hydrangea’ may have come from the fabled Greek monster, the Hydra, renowned for its many heads and its exceptional self-restorative attributes.
The Lernaean Hydra … to give the monster its full name … lived in Lake Lerna in southern Greece. According to classical legend, Heracles … who is perhaps better known as Hercules … was the strongest of all mortals and the last mortal son of the god Zeus. As well as being renowned for his immense physical strength, Heracles was well-known for his lack of intelligence and for his tendency to commit irrational acts. During one of his fits of eccentric behaviour, he killed his wife Megara and his children, an action which resulted in King Eurystheus ruling that he must undertake seven well-nigh impossible tasks as a punishment. The second of these tasks was to kill the Hydra; and after travelling to Lake Lerna and covering his nose and mouth as protection against the poisonous gases which rose from the water, he succeeded in luring the Hydra ashore. So far, so good. But when Heracles beheaded the monster, two new heads appeared to replace the one he had cut off! However, after further trials and tribulations and with help from his nephew Iolaus, Heracles succeeded in destroying the monster with a golden sword which he was given by the goddess Athena.
Well, hydrangeas are shrubs with many glorious flower-heads, although I must report that those in my garden do not respond to having one head cut off by growing two new ones to replace it. The true origin of the name ‘hydrangea’ is that it comes from two Greek words, hydor, meaning ‘water’ and aggos, meaning ‘a jar’ which refers to the cup-shaped fruits which follow the flowers in season. Originally from southern and eastern Asia … China, Japan, Korea, the Himalayas and Indonesia … and the Americas, the great majority of the seventy-plus species come originally from China, Japan and Korea. Most of the species are shrubs … bushes with several stems spring from the roots … but some are trees with just a single stem rising from ground level and a few are actually climbers, like vines. They can be ever-green or deciduous, meaning that they shed their leaves during the autumn: and virtually all the species that are grown in cultivation are deciduous.
Hydrangea macrophylla … ‘the large-leaved hydrangea’ … was introduced into the Azores from Japan and thrived there to the extent that one of the island … Faial … has become known as ‘the blue island’ by virtue of the number of these bushes whose blue flowers dominate the landscape throughout the summer months. These prominent flowers are a feature of the many variants which have been developed in cultivation; where wild hydrangeas are still found, the flowers tend to be rather insignificant. The cultivated species either boast large, round flower heads reminiscent of the heads of kitchen mops and are known … surprise, surprise … as ‘mopheads’; or they carry flat flower heads with a centre core of small flowers surrounded by outer rings of larger flowers and are known as ‘lacecaps’. Most hydrangea species have white flowers: but some … including most which are to be seen in gardens and bought in garden centres … have blue, red, pink, light purple, or dark purple flowers. The relative acidity of the soil in which they are grown often determines the colour; those growing in acid soil will have blue to purple flowers while those grown in alkaline soil will usually be red or pink. There are, however, species which have been bred specifically to have red or blue flowers. I have both and both are beautiful all summer long.