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GRANNY'S LEGACY Hydrangeas, popular in bygone days, are on the comeback trail

Hydrangea (n.) -- A stodgy-looking plant of Grandma's day with humdrum foliage, little fragrance and flowers the size of volleyballs.

That's how most folks remember hydrangeas. Granny loved the sturdy old shrubs with the bloated blossoms, and raised them beside the front porch. The plants were as tough as the nails she scattered at their base when she wanted to change the color of the flowers.

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On one trip to Granny's, the hydrangeas were pink. Another time, they were blue -- a magical metamorphosis that captivated children.

Now those youngsters are 40-something, ready to garden and anxious to plant the roots of their past. Guess what they're

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asking for?

Hydrangeas.

City folk want them. Suburbanites want them. Even the perennially tasteful Martha Stewart has discovered them.

"I've just planted a hydrangea garden in East Hampton, including [some of] the deepest burgundies and bicolored ones," Ms. Stewart says.

Hydrangeas are making a comeback, spreading like wildflowers and cropping up in yards across the country. Sales of the old-fashioned shrub are booming; many area nurseries report a doubling of sales in the last year or two.

How hot are hydrangeas? The floral pattern is racing through the textile industry, appearing on everything from sweaters to slipcovers.

"Hydrangeas are very popular in home fashions. We're really seeing them in prints," says Marjorie Ford, spokeswoman for Schumacher, a leading American textile company. Schumacher's latest catalog offers -- what else? -- a hydrangea table skirt.

Nurserymen say the shrub tugs at people's memories, then their wallets.

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"It's a nostalgia thing," says Steve Klein of River Hill Garden Center in Clarksville, where hydrangea sales jumped 100 percent last spring. "If customers don't know [the shrub's] name, they'll describe it as 'the big snowball-type flower that Grandma used to grow.'

"We know what they're talking about."

Where he once marketed a lone variety of hydrangea, Mr. Klein now offers six.

"It's the baby boomers who are buying them," he says. "Gardening is a very emotional hobby, and these plants trigger a certain mood or recollection in people."

In Glenarm, a nursery that offered two types of hydrangeas last spring now touts five. "There is a simplicity about them that people can relate to," says Rick Watson of Exterior Design Inc.

Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville sold a record 4,000 hydrangeas last year. "I couldn't keep them in stock," says Helmut Jaehnigen, Behnke's head nurseryman.

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Who would have thought it? Granny's plant is in the spotlight -- ditto, the laboratory. New varieties include dwarf hydrangeas, space-saving shrubs ideal for townhouse gardens; hybrids with unusual variegated and tricolored foliage; and hydrangeas with long, flat-topped flowers reminiscent of lilacs.

But the old-fashioned types remain the favorites.

"A lot of high-end growers are producing hydrangeas now," says Bob Phillips, general manager of Shemins Nursery, a wholesale plant distributor in Burtonsville. "We've seen tremendous interest the last couple of years.

"It's part of the resurgence of older plants. The feeling is, there must be something good about a plant that's been around for so long."

The shrub's old-timey charm is only part of its appeal. Hydrangeas are hardy and easy to grow, a plus for homeowners in the hurry-up '90s. They tolerate partial sun and bask in the shade of large trees.

Some gardeners like to fiddle with the color of the 6-inch flowers, which bloom from midsummer into fall. Increasing the acidity of the soil turns pink hydrangeas blue, while adding lime has the opposite effect. Generally, the change takes two years to complete. (White hydrangeas stay white, regardless of the soil's pH level.)

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The ball-shaped blossoms can be dried and used in decorative arrangements. "They're luscious-looking and very romantic in winter," says Eleanor Oster, a floral designer in Ruxton. "Dried hydrangeas remind you of a period of gracious living, when people had time to truly appreciate beauty.

"I call it the Southern belle mentality."

Ms. Oster's own hydrangea bed has a quaint motif: eight snowball plants surrounding a whitewashed, old swing set with an Amish buggy seat, which rocks lazily when there's a breeze. By summer, the flowers are mesmerizing, a source of delight through autumn.

"When the blossoms first open, they're all tinged with green," she says. "The real colors come gradually, over the course of several weeks. But that's not all. Watch them closely and the colors keep changing. Sunlight turns the blue ones a deep purple, as does a crisp, cool night."

Even the white flowers are intriguing to watch, says Ms. Oster. "At night, my white hydrangeas look ghostly. They illuminate the area around them, like little night lights."

Come fall, she trims the large flowers and dries them for use in wedding bouquets and holiday garlands. As they dry, Ms. Oster says, the blossoms continue to surprise. Vibrant blues turn almost gold-green; purples become bronze; and whites take on a tannish hue.

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Nurserymen say plant fads come and go, and that the hydrangea's days in the sun are numbered. Ms. Oster agrees. "Everything is cyclical," she says.

"You see less and less of ornamental grasses now. People enjoy that wild look, yet they also want something a little more tame, and the hydrangea provides a little of both." Next year, some other shrub could supplant it. But for now, the hydrangea is queen.

"She's a bold lady, not a shy wallflower," says Ms. Oster. "She has no fear of changing her color right in front of your eyes. She's constantly evolving, growing, transforming herself."

Pub Date: 5/16/96


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