I was at a Hydrangea Society meeting the other night, and the speaker did not beat around the bush when he spoke of the winter damage to the big leaf hydrangea, Hydrangea macrophylla. To quote the speaker, “dead is dead, the brown stems have to go.”
Some gardeners have left the stems because of the presence of one or two small green buds. These buds will begin to open in May but will dry out in June. The sooner the brown stems are removed, the faster these plants will recover. Most of these damaged hydrangeas will send up new shoots from below ground and will grow to almost their normal size this season.
Depending on the variety, some will even produce a few flowers this fall. This was the hardest winter for these mophead hydrangeas that I have seen in my forty years here on the Cape. Some years they have been okay, some years good, and just a very few years they have been great. Hydrangea macrophylla, the mopheads, do have winter temperature issues.
For a tough as nails hydrangea, opt for the panicle hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata. Varieties in this species will give you everything you want in a hydrangea (except, alas, the color blue!). Hydrangea serrata, the lacecap hydrangea, is another strong species with varieties that bloom in blue. For now, winter damage on Hydrangea macrophylla means brown is down.