In late August, hydrangeas take center stage in the Berkshires. And in a summer with so little live music, dance, or theater, they’re putting on a welcome show. Our “Pinky Winky” paniculatas are exploding in the back garden, setting off rockets of deep rust and white surrounded by bursts of tiny sparklers. On a drive through town as dusk descends, the hooped skirts of a row of Annabelles — snow white and otherworldly in the fading light — look like so many ball gowns gently adrift on the darkening lawn. A few years ago, I fell in love with blue hydrangeas which thrive in fertile, acidic soil, making them a dangerous passion to take up for someone with my pebble-strewn, alkaline-tending garden. Amendments, peat moss, replanting — trying to give a blue hydrangea the perfect bed is not unlike the search for a comfortable mattress in the “Princess and the Pea”. Most years I get only a handful of good blooms. This summer, with an early infestation of aphids, I ended up with only three. But it was worth it, especially now as the petals’ summery pale blue begins to deepen into a deep, moody maroon.
In Rainer Maria Rilke’s evocative poem on the subject he compares the melancholy of the fading flowers to dried paint pots, blue writing paper, a tear stained mirror, and a child’s pinafore — all within the sonnet’s 14 lines — and, even then, manages a joyful burst of hope at the end. That’s the kind of magical effect these beauties will have on you.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Edward Snow
These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots—dried up, dull, and rough,
behind the flowered umbels whose blue
is not their own, only mirrored from far away.
In their mirror it is vague and tear-stained,
as if deep down they wished to lose it;
and as with blue writing paper
there is yellow in them, violet and gray;
washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
no longer worn things, which nothing can befall:
how one feels a small life’s shortness.
But suddenly the blue seems to revive
in one of the umbels, and one sees
a touching blue’s rejoicing in green.