If you live in mild and warmer parts of the country, your go-to hydrangea is probably the mophead, with its flowers of blue or pink. If you live in colder areas, though, where mopheads don’t do well, your go-to is probably the Annabelle hydrangea. In fact, even a lot of experienced gardeners in areas with mild winters and summers that aren’t too hot, choose it too, because of its dense growth and reliable abundance of big flowers. The only limitation is that it is white. Not that white isn’t a great garden color, one of the best, that we never tire of. Still, a change of color would be nice, so people struggle to grow pink mopheads in cold zones, and feel great when they get a couple of flower heads.
Well, forget all that, because if you haven’t heard the news, there is now a ‘Pink Annabelle’. Yes, that’s right. A hydrangea bush that is a prolific bloomer even in zone 4, and has really big, round balls of pink topping 4-foot stems and making a fantastic display. Actually there are more than one, but more on that later. The heads are a full 7 inches across, packed with hundred of blooms, and they are held up on strong stems, lasting week after week without greening. Plants bloom abundantly in cold zones, and mild ones too, and there is no fancy pruning needed. Just cut your bush short in late fall or early spring and it will bounce right back and bloom like mad. How easy is that?
The story of how this plant appeared and was created is an interesting one, so settle back, relax, and enjoy the tale.
The Smooth Hydrangea
Our story begins with a plant native to America. Yes, not all hydrangeas come from China. The smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, grows wild all the way down the eastern side of the country, from New York state to northern Florida. It is found as far west as eastern parts of Oklahoma and Kansas too. You might come across it along the edges of streams or growing in damp woodlands. It is most common in the Appalachians and along the Delaware Valley.
You might be forgiven if you saw it in the wild if you didn’t recognize it. The wild plant wouldn’t look like much in anyone’s garden, because the blooms are flat heads of small greenish flowers. As you may already know, hydrangeas have two types of flowers. In wild plants most of the head is made up of tiny flowers without any petals. They are fertile, though, and produce the seeds. The plant saves on energy by making just a few flowers, around the outer edge of the flower-head, that are bigger – flat, up to an inch across, and usually white. The smooth hydrangea hardly even bothers with those, which are either completely absent, or there are just a few, barely a ½ inch across. So this is hardly a plant that is going to get your gardener’s pulse racing. There is certainly nothing about it that would make anyone think it had ‘garden merit’, unless they were a visionary.
The First Big-blooming Smooth Hydrangea
Sadly, so many stories about where are garden plants from are lost entirely, or just a thin thread remains. This time we have a thin thread at least, with a few details. Somewhere in Ohio, sometime towards the end of the 1800’s, someone – probably a botanist or a nurseryman – found a plant growing that had mutated. Instead of just a few scattered sterile flowers, it had a whole head of them, making a round ball of flowers about 6 inches across. When young they are greenish, turning white as they mature. Some say the plant resembles the Snowball Tree, Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, but it is rare today, at least in America. Its official name is ‘Grandiflora’.
The Annabelle Hydrangea
The reason for the disappearance of ‘Grandiflora’ from most gardens was the discovery, probably early last century, of a plant (a seedling of ‘Grandiflora’??) at The Gulf Stream Nursery in Wachapreague, Virginia. This long-standing nursery was still running in the 1960s, but has since then disappeared. The nursery is perhaps most famous for introducing to America the Crimson King Maple, surely the most popular red-leaf tree of them all. To that, though, can be added the hydrangea called ‘Annabelle’, which is popular around the world today. With flower heads up to a foot across, it is a real show-stopper, and widely grown. In 1993 it was given the highest award for a garden plant, the Award of Garden Merit, from the Royal Horticultural Society in England.
The Incrediball® Hydrangea
As most people who grow them know, like loved children, both ‘Grandiflora’ and ‘Annabelle’ have their faults. The main one is a tendency for the stems to be too weak for the flower heads, so a thunderstorm, or just time, often makes them flop over. The more you prune hard to get bigger heads, the worse the problem becomes.
That’s why, in 2002, the plant breeder Timothy Wood, from Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Michigan, decided to grow a big batch of seedlings of ‘Annabelle’ to try and fix this problem. Among the hundreds of plants he grew was one that defied gravity, and kept those heads standing up through bad weather and general adversity. He patented it with the name ‘Abetwo’, but nurseries and gardeners know it by the name Incrediball®. It’s a big improvement on the old ‘Annabelle’, and will probably replace it in time, just as ‘Annabelle’ has replaced ‘Grandiflora’. It’s a process that has always gone on in gardens, and always will.
But, this plant of course has white flowers, and we began this by talking about pink ones, so we had better push on with our tale.
The First Pink Smooth Hydrangea
Lots of people who enjoy gardening also enjoy hiking, so it wasn’t anything strange to find, on a summer’s day in 2003, a student of horticulture called Richard Olson hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It would take a horticulture student, though, or a very experienced gardener, to spot what Richard spotted. He saw a lone smooth hydrangea growing near a spot called Wesser Falls that had the usual small flowers, but they were pink, not white.
He took some cuttings and brought them to Dr. Tom Ranney at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mill River, North Carolina. Dr. Ranney is a very experienced plant breeder and he knew just what to do. He crossed Richard’s plant, which they had named ‘Wesser Falls’, with ‘Annabelle’. They grew thousands of seedlings, and just one among them all had big heads of double flowers that were pink.
They patented it, with the official name ‘NCHA1’, and called it Invincibelle™ Spirit.
Things Get Better. . .
Invincibelle™ Spirit was certainly pink, but it wasn’t perfect. The stems were often floppy, the plant wasn’t particularly vigorous, and the color could have been stronger.
About now, in plant breeding, things get more competitive, as the possibility of a pink Annabelle caught on. So Dr. Ranney and Richard Olson kept working, and in 2017 they patented a greatly-improved variety they called ‘NCHA3’, and released as Invincibelle® Ruby. It has stronger stems, and flowers of a more intense and clearer pink color.
Next followed a clearer, but lighter pink, called Incrediball® Blush.
As some side developments, they also created what is basically a compact Annabelle, just 2 to 3 feet tall, called Invincibelle® Wee White. As well they found a similar white, but this time with the always-fashionable lime-green tones that gardeners love, called Invincibelle Limetta®.
Or, Another Version. . .
Competition being what it is, after the release of that first plant, Invincibelle™ Spirit, a breeder in The Netherlands, in fact in Boskoop, the biggest center for horticulture and innovation in Europe, took Ranney and Olson’s plant and crossed it with the Incrediball® Hydrangea, that great white with such strong stems. He was Peter Kolster and among his many seedlings he found one that was worthy. With strong stems and big pink blooms, he named it ‘Kolpinbel’ when he patented it is 2018, and it has been released in America as the Pinkerella Hydrangea.
What Next for the Pink Annabelle?
Right now, as you can see, there are several similar plants out there, all vying for the garden title of ‘Pink Annabelle’. Over the next few years gardeners will grow them all, and gradually reach a consensus – a democratic coming together – over which is the overall best garden plant. Perhaps more than one will continue to be popular, but you can bet that in time one of them – or maybe a new plant still to come – will dominate, and be the go-to when the need is a pink, cold-resistant hydrangea.
You can get involved in this – cast your vote in this big informal election – by growing some of them in your garden and spreading the word about which you like best, and it’s pros and cons. That’s how the gardening world works, and you are a gardener, so go for it.