Hydrangea macrophylla “Merveille Sanguine”

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Hydrangeas are something of a staple plant in Cornish gardens, where the moist but mild climate suits them perfectly. My grandmother grew them to perfection, watering them regularly with used washing-up water (complete with stray teaspoons), encouraging them to produce flowers of the clearest, brightest cornflower blue.

Used inappropriately hydrangeas can be coarse, clashy and old fashioned, especially in front of a seaside bungalow with a clump of pampas grass and a feature Cordyline. (I have probably offended half the population of Cornwall with that statement.) The mop heads I’m talking about (Hydrangea macrophylla) display heavy clusters of sky blue, candy pink, red or white flowers in late summer, often weighing branches to the ground. Fortunately, leading florists have made the varieties with faded, antique-coloured flowers seriously fashionable again in recent years. Soil type can do much to determine flower colour. An alkaline pH of 6.5 is best for hydrangeas that are white or pink. For blue flowers you need a much more acid soil and a pH of around 5. Bluing agents are available and some gardeners use rusty nails or tea leaves to improve the blueness of the flowers. If grown in a degree of shade the bushes loosen up a little and grow in a more pleasing, natural way.

I normally prefer the lace caps and paniculata hybrids which are less solid and round in form. However I’m making a major exception for Hydrangea macrophylla “Merveille Sanguine” which is one of the most jaw-dropping flowering shrubs I have ever encountered. The flowers are a unique shade of cassis centred on a central boss of violet blue. The leaves have a deep red cast which intensifies in late summer and provide the perfect foil for the gorgeous flower heads. The photograph above was taken in pouring rain at The Garden House this weekend, as I vainly tried to hold a golf umbrella and balance the camera on my knee at the same time. Hence I am particularly proud of it! I hadn’t thought about the name until I worked out that it roughly translates as ‘Bloody Marvellous’. A fine name for a very fine plant!