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Originally published July 31, 2014 at 6:16 AM | Page modified August 1, 2014 at 9:10 AM

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Try mountain hydrangeas, eye-catching tropicals

Garden writer Ciscoe Morris introduces us to mountain hydrangeas and gives tips on planting topical houseplants outdoors.

Special to The Seattle Times

Gardening Events

Ciscoe’s Picks

Fancy Fronds Frolic annual open house: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 9. Rare plants and garden art from some of the Northwest’s premier specialty growers and garden artists. Fancy Fronds Nursery, 40830 172nd St. S.E., Gold Bar (

Pine Lake Garden Club Sammamish Garden Tour: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 9. Tour seven gardens in the Sammamish area. Tickets ($15, free for age 12 and under) available on day of tour at John L. Scott, 718 228th Ave. N.E., Sammamish (

“Luscious Landscaping With Fruits” lecture and garden tour: 1 p.m. Aug. 10. Learn how to beautify your garden and put local, healthy, flavorful food on the table. Magnuson Park, Garden Room, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; $20 tickets (discount for City Fruit members) available online (


In the Garden

Mountain hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata) have only recently become available at local and online nurseries, but they are quickly growing in popularity. These compact growers are hardier than standard varieties of hydrangea, and most feature long-lasting and attractive lace-cap flowers and colorful foliage.

With so many exciting new varieties available, I turned to our renowned local hydrangea expert Nita-Jo Rountree for a recommendation. Her current favorite is “Kiyosumi.” The new foliage emerges burgundy, gradually turning green infused with reddish purple. The captivating lace-cap type flowers are white, edged in red, before finally fading to rich pink. According to Rountree, her hydrangea is planted in full sun and still looks great even after our mid-July high temperatures.

I recently purchased newly introduced Hydrangea serrata “Tuff Stuff.” The flowers on this prolific bloomer open rosy-red before fading to pink, and the new leaves emerge an attractive wine-red and are purported to turn rich shades of purple in fall.

Hydrangea serrata “Preziosa” is an unusual variety of mountain hydrangea because it’s taller than the others (5 feet) and produces the more traditional mop-head flowers. By the end of summer, the white flowers turn a spectacular red while the leaves take on deep burgundy tones, creating an ever more spectacular color display as fall approaches.

Mountain hydrangeas do best in rich, well-drained soil. They can take full sun as long as the soil remains moist. Be aware that the color will be influenced by the soil pH, and the above-mentioned plants will tend to become bluer in our acid conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Add lime in late autumn to maintain red flowers, or aluminum sulfate starting in late winter to make the flowers bluer.

Add an exotic touch

Although tropical houseplants are rarely planted out directly in the garden, many will thrive in the border as long as the conditions are right. Their unique textures and colorful foliage add lushness to the garden.

Most tropical plants do best in well-drained potting soil and prefer to be slightly pot-bound. Therefore, as a general rule when planting topical houseplants outdoors, it’s best to leave them in the pot they’re growing in, covering the lip with just enough soil to hide it.

Among the most eye-catching of all tropical plants in an ornamental bed is Caladium (elephant ear). This South American native features arrow-shaped, almost translucent leaves boldly blotched in red, rose, white, silver, bronze and green. These heat lovers prefer shade, moist soil and regular feeding with a soluble houseplant fertilizer. Designate these to the compost bin when they die back at the end of the season. They can be stored but take too long to grow back, so you’re better off buying a new one every spring.

Bromeliads grown for their colorful foliage and unusual shape and texture also make great tropical-looking additions to the border. The dark-red leaves of Billbergia “Hallelujah” are spotted white and form clumps of tall, narrow tubes. Even more colorful, the leaves of Vriesa hieroglyphica are banded in radio-wave-like lines of red, pink, white and black zigzagging across the stiff, green leaves. Don’t feed Bromeliads. Plant them in their pots in a protected area where they can be watered only when the soil surface feels dry. Make sure there is a little water in the central cups at all times. Bromeliads color up best if they are located where they receive morning sun.

Finally, with wine-red leaves marked by lighter veins, nothing can match the tropical flair created by Iresine herbstii (blood leaf). This Brazilian beauty loves a sunny location. Water and fertilize regularly, and pinch top growth as needed to keep it bushy and full.

As fall approaches, start practicing your hula dance because your house will feel like the tropics when you bring all your treasures inside for the winter.

Ciscoe Morris: “Gardening With Ciscoe” airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING 5.

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