What has been fascinating about this for me is noticing the differences in vigor, disease resistance and flowering is very consistant from nursery to nursery. So even with the variables of soil, fertilizer, irrigation and hardiness zones, certain cultivars always outperform the others. This is not just true for Hydrangeas- I see this in Camellias, Hostas, Roses and all of the other species we favor with wide cultivar selections.
Of the Hydrangeas, there is one cultivar that has been terribly overlooked by gardeners and landscape designers. I think that it never took hold because consumers have come to associate Hydrangeas with blue, volleyball-sized mopheads. 'Lady in Red' does not satisfy that description.
Introduced by Dr. Michael Dirr from the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Hydrangea macrophylla 'Lady in Red' has many qualities that make it unique and superior to many Hydrangeas on the market.
DISEASE RESISTANCE: Most Hydrangeas are susceptible to Powdery Mildew and leaf spots caused by Colletotrichum and Cercospora. These diseases not only impact the aesthetics of the plants, but also the overall vigor. Plants that become infected with these diseases tend to lose their leaves earlier in the season and have reduced flower size (over time).
'Lady in Red' is resistant to Powdery Mildew. If a 'Lady in Red' Hydrangea is growing in the center of a group of Powdery Mildew-laden Hydrangeas (let's say 'Claudie' which is one of the worst), it will not get diseased. The same holds true for the leaf spots.
The foliage alone is reason to grow this plant.
FORM: The stems, which are a gorgeous wine-red, are sturdy and upright. This plant does not flop and fall apart like some of the traditional mopheads. The flowers are smaller, so they do not pull the stems down to the ground.
That being said, understand that 'Lady in Red' does not have the LARGE flowers like a blue mophead. And I just know that this is the reason it did not become the blockbuster that 'Endless Summer' has become. We are not a nation of subtleties.
USE IN THE LANDSCAPE: 'Lady in Red' should not be planted alone. This plant is going to be most effective when planted en masse. Trust me on this. Just looking at this pictures taken at a North Carolina nursery (Fair View Nursery) and you see what I mean. You really want five or ten to really make an impact.
And these pictures were taken in late October! Just look at that strong foliage; Hydrangeas are usually slowing down and turning yellow by this time of year. (The fall coloration on this cultivar is a deep, velvety reddish-purple. Divine.)
I could see this plant growing in front of a thick evergreen screen or planted near the foundation of a grey or stone building. Plant a large sweep of Black-eyed Susans or 'Autumn Joy' Sedum in front of the 'Lady in Red' Hydrangeas and I think it would be really impressive.
It is time to re-examine this cultivar.
I think it is a shame that it is not used more in the industry because it has all of the qualities we tell breeders we want: compactness, multi-season interest, flower, disease resistance. Fact is, if it wasn't a Hydrangea, we would all be using it. We've just got an image in our heads of what a Hydrangea is supposed to look like.....and 'Lady in Red' doesn't fit that image.
Love, love, love this plant. And you should, too.