A Tale of the Climbing Hydrangeas

From afar, these two climbing vines look the same, but they're not...


This is a photo of a semi-shady corner of my garden.  You can see two climbing hydrangeas – one on the shed and one on the tree on the right side of the photo.  At first glance, and definitely from this distance, they look like the same vine, but they are not.  The one climbing on the shed (and the fence to the right of it) is Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris (let’s call this one CH), commonly known as climbing hydrangea.  The vine climbing on the tree (and the piece of fence behind it) is actually Schizophragma  hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’ (let’s call this one JCH) also commonly known as climbing hydrangea or Japanese climbing hydrangea.  Huh?  

I planted both vines about 7 years ago and have basically left them alone since that time.   Except for the first year when they were getting settled, I have given neither of them any supplemental watering and only minimal fertilizer.  I don’t prune either of them – the deer do it for me.  Both vines started from just one 1-gallon plant.  Both were slow to get started but once established have grown at a faster pace.  This is the first year I can remember JCH actually flowering.  CH has been flowering for several years but only on the out-of-deer-browsing range branches.  

CH is a woody vine that eventually reaches up to 40′. Mature plants have thick, exfoliating bark that is quite interesting in winter.  CH needs a strong and sturdy structure to climb but also makes a unique groundcover, as you can see in the top photo.  I have also seen it clambering over stone walls and it looks right at home in such a location.  Because it climbs by means of small, rootlike holdfasts, it will not injure trees if you decide to plant it to cover an unattractive tree trunk.  Lateral branches can extend up to 3′ from the main stem, giving this vine a wavy, undulating appearance.   

The flowers of Hydrangea anomala ssp. petiolaris

 The flowers of CH look a lot like those of a lacecap hydrangea, just a bit fuzzier.  CH blooms a few weeks earlier than Schizophragma.  When these photos were taken in early June, the flowers of CH were on the decline will the flowers on JCH were just getting started. The heart-shaped leaves of CH are glossy and a deep green and are not bothered by insects or fungus. This vine is best grown in part – full shade and seems to be drought-tolerant in my garden.  Something I cannot say about my other hydrangeas. 

The flowers of Japanese climbing hydrangea 'Moonlight'


Here are the flowers and leaves of Japanese climbing hydrangea (JCH).  Notice the difference in the flowers?  It’s subtle so you may need to look closely.  I find the flowers of JCH more interesting, maybe because I haven’t seen them in a long time! The large creamy white sepals surrounding the inner  fuzzy flower look like little hearts.   On CH, the sepals are actually clusters of 4 smaller petals.  Supposedly, the flowers of JCH remain on the vine for a long period of time and are less ‘messy’ than the flowers of CH.  The leaves of JCH ‘Moonlight’ are silvery bluish-green with dark green veins.  Also heart-shaped, JCH leaves have finely notched edges.  

JCH can also be grown in part – full shade and once established grows quite quickly.  JCH is not as woody as CH so it does not require such a sturdy support structure.  JCH is supposed to be hardier than CH and tolerate more shade than CH.  JCH also grows to about 30′, that’s a good size but about 1/2 the size of CH.  

So which climbing hydrangea is right for your garden?  If you’re lucky enough to have room for both, by all means grow both of them.  If you need to choose just one, think about where you will grow it – how much sun the site gets (more shade = JCH), will it grow as a ground cover or hide a tree truck (CH needs a sturdy support), will it be a focal point of your winter garden (definitely CH), are you looking for something a bit unusual (maybe JCH).  No matter which climbing hydrangea you choose, you can’t go wrong.