First it sleeps, then it creeps, then it leaps.” This old gardeners’ saying fits the climbing hydrangea perfectly. And gardeners take heed, because this excellent vine, which can add tremendous beauty and lushness to your property, can become an addictive feature in the landscape. It should be used carefully -- not overly lavishly -- because once established (which takes two to three years), a single vine covers a very large area! I first saw climbing hydrangeas at Frank Cabot’s wonderful Stonecrop, in Cold Spring, New York, now a public garden. Verdant, massive vines climbed up many of the giant trees, which looked like a new species because their trunks were completely covered with green leaves and white flowers. I asked Frank about them, and the propriety of growing such large species on and up trees. He told me they were appropriate, and did not hurt the growth nor the health of large trees as long as the vines didn’t weigh down the higher, smaller branches.
I planted my first climbing hydrangeas on my farm to cover the trunks of the large sugar maples and spruce trees growing near the houses. In several years the trunks were totally concealed, and they now look like what I envision the woodland did in William Henry Hudson’s novel "Green Mansions". Five years ago, after a hurricane cleared off the tops of six enormous spruces by the entrance to my property, it occurred to me during cleanup that these “stumps” would be ideal climbing stakes. We planted one vine at the base of each. Today, due to the lush growth of the vines, the stumps are six to seven feet wide and 20 feet high. All year long they just look like huge shrubs.
The vines are most beautiful in bloom during the early summer. By autumn, the leaves turn a vibrant yellow, another lovely landscape enhancement. They also have great winter color once the foliage has fallen. The exfoliating bark is a rich brownish-red hue, and oftentimes the flowers dry on the vines, adding an ethereal beauty.
Climbing hydrangeas love rich soil and do well in full sun, partial shade, and even deep shade. Because they are hardy growers with strong aerial rootlets that cling to all surfaces, you can plant them on sturdy structures, like stone or brick walls, chimneys, and houses; avoid wooden shingles and clapboard, which can be damaged by these rootlets or “holdfasts.” Be prepared to prune the vines annually to keep them off windows and frames, and even from spreading like a ground cover in the garden. Their enthusiasm to grow knows no bounds.