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Originally published August 16, 2009 at 12:14 AM | Page modified August 18, 2009 at 12:57 PM

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Plant Life

From a huge selection, an expert picks his favorite hydrangeas

With showy flowers, great foliage and easy-to-grow manners, hydrangeas nearly have it all. From the huge array of choices, global plantsman Daniel J. Hinkley offers his favorites among the up-and-coming generation.

IF HYDRANGEAS were fragrant they'd be the perfect shrub. You can't expect any plant named after the Greek word for water to be exactly drought tolerant, but most gardens have a spot or two with shade and moist soil where hydrangeas will thrive with a minimum of supplemental watering.

Hydrangeas are a huge and various genus to encompass adoration on so many levels. Any plant coveted by serious horticulturists yet easy enough for all of us to grow well has something special going for it. I was reminded how true this is recently when I cornered plant explorer Dan Hinkley to ask about his favorite hydrangeas.

While I've just discovered the oak leafs with double flowers (H. quercifolia 'Snowflake') and still consider a hydrangea with yellow leaves slightly exotic (H. macrophylla 'Lemon Daddy'), Hinkley enthuses about hydrangeas I've never heard of. California wholesaler Monrovia is busy producing these unusual hydrangeas, which Hinkley collected around the globe, so I'm hoping they'll be widely available in nurseries soon.

Devotion from someone like Hinkley, so out in front that most of us can barely keep him in sight as he bounds off in pursuit of yet another stylish new plant, should quell any suspicion that hydrangeas are old-fashioned. While mop-heads (Hydrangea macrophylla) may look right at home in cottage gardens and traditional borders, what about the creamy, cone-shaped flowers of Hydrangea paniculata burgeoning out of a tall urn? The large, soft leaves, willowy shape and lacecap flowers of H. aspera lend a tropical flair. I recently admired the clean, graphic effect of oak leaf hydrangeas running like a thick ribbon around the perimeter of a country house. Just picture that scene in autumn when thousands of hydrangea leaves turn brilliant shades of red and plum. A single specimen hydrangea held aloft in a pot is as effective in its silhouette as masses of hydrangeas spilling over low walls.

And nothing is lovelier than just about any kind of hydrangea flower cut for the vase — or dried in an autumn arrangement.

So which hydrangeas is Hinkley excited about? Nothing typical, or particularly pronounceable, as you might imagine. But each of these plants has unique attributes that'll shine in your garden, once you can actually buy them.

Hydrangea indochinensis from Vietnam has white and lavender lacecap flowers in late summer. But what's exceptional is its glossy evergreen foliage. This hydrangea never sheds its leaves, which have purple undersides as an added bonus. You can almost picture Hinkley rubbing his hands in anticipation as he comments: "It may well lend itself to great breeding potential to introduce evergreen qualities to our garden hydrangeas." Meaning this hydrangea will no doubt be the granddaddy of many useful hydrangeas to come.

Hydrangea serratifolia, from the mountains of Chile, is not only evergreen but an exceptionally hardy climber. It is self-adhering, meaning it clings to whatever fence or tree it's using as a scaffold. The durable, glossy evergreen foliage is dotted with curious popcorn-ball-like buds that open to white lacecap flowers in midsummer.

• Then there's the Hydrangea aspera subsp. Kawakamii from Taiwan. It's large, late-blooming and showy, with bicolored lacecap blooms in purple and creamy white. Despite its exotic-looking felted leaves, it's dependably hardy here in the Northwest.

• Prepare yourself for the name of the next one, which Hinkley collected in China's Sichuan Province. Hydrangea aspera subsp. strigosa 'Elegant Sound Pavilion' has poofy, double flower heads that bloom in early September. The flowers start out a soft jade green, ripen to cream, then fade to lavender, all shown off by soft, narrow leaves. Such theatrics might make it worthwhile to master this plant's name.

• If the beauty above blooms late, this next one flowers on the cusp of the spring equinox. Hydrangea angustipetala has narrow, jagged leaves that look more like a forsythia than a hydrangea. And it blooms nearly as early, unfurling white and chartreuse lacecap flowers in March. Hinkley says its large blooms are elegant, and . . . I guess we do have the perfect plant here. H. angustipetala is sweetly fragrant.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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