It’s tempting to infer from their name that they love water – and indeed they do (although ‘hydrangea’ means ‘water jar’ and refers to their cup-shaped fruit). They have certainly loved this summer’s rain and been more bounteous in flower than ever, in my experience, before.
For total immersion in hydrangeas there is nowhere on earth like the curiously-named Shamrock Collection, the French National collection created by Robert and Corinne Mallet at Varengeville, just west of Dieppe. The Mallet family is famous for another garden in Varengeville, Le Bois des Moutiers, plunging towards the sea from one of Edwin Lutyens’ most inspired country houses. Hydrangeas play their part here, under giant cedars around fern-fringed pools, alongside rhododendrons and flowering dogwoods, maples and oaks.
But across the village, in the Shamrock garden, they reign supreme. Why Shamrock? Because its creators made three trips to Ireland in the1990s, collecting old hydrangea varieties that might have been lost on the continent. Illogical as it sounds, the Irish symbol stuck to their hydrangea collection.
There is a pleasing unity about this genus, varied as it is. Unity of form; the starburst, whether into a simple mop or somethingmuch more elaborate; and colour – anywhere white through pink of all shades to not-quite red and all shades of purple. But nothing on the orange side of the spectrum.
They can be hefty plants with thrusting plumes, like the paniculatas, or as delicate as Japanese dolls, with intricate frilly details. There are matt petals and petals that seem to sparkle; big glossy leaves and tiny serrated ones. Yet somehow they all clearly say hydrangea.
The Mallets planned their five acres of woodland to give them partial shade but avoid competing with their roots by the ingenious resource of planting paulownias. Paulownias root deep and have big leaves. They also flower in spring. They planted buddleias, too, but the show is all hydrangea: in July and August a sight to wonder at.