Three years ago, I found myself sitting beside Rob Naraj at an industry luncheon promoting new plant introductions. Rob and I were in the same year at U of Guelph, although he concentrated on the agricultural business program while I stuck more to ornamental horticulture. Rob is now the wholesale business manager at Sheridan Nurseries in Ontario, so he has a huge responsibility resting on his shoulders, and he does an A-1 job.
After lunch, Dr. Tim Woods (of Bloomerang lilac fame) from Spring Meadow Nursery in Michigan, took the microphone to introduce his phenomenal new smooth hydrangea cultivar (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Abetwo’, Zone 3), being marketed under the retail name “Incrediball.” Having spent more hours than I care to count propping up and staking the floppy, weak-stemmed H. a. ‘Annabelle’, I let slip a sotto voce groan. Rob immediately turned to me and said “No! You’ve gotta get some of these. Trust me!”
I could tell he was in deadly earnest, so I took his advice and three years later, I’m very glad I did. Our severe winter of 2013-14 didn’t faze Incrediball, nor has the cold, wet summer that’s followed. Simply put, now that it’s well established, it’s become one of my absolute best-performing shrubs. Native to the eastern United States, smooth hydrangea is rabbit resistant and juglone tolerant, and because it blooms on new wood, it’s easy to prune: just cut shrubs down to their crowns (i.e., ground level) in early spring, and you’re done for the year.
Incrediball was introduced in 2009, and is the result of a cross between H. a. ‘Annabelle’ and an unknown pollen parent. Unlike its weak-kneed mother, Incrediball is taller, has much stronger stems and larger flowerheads—up to 20 centimetres tall by 30 centimetres wide—and each corymb is comprised of over 2,600 individual flowers. After a torrential rain, the blooms of Incrediball may bend, but they quickly spring back to an upright position as the flowerheads dry off.
In side-by-side comparisons, the flowers of Incrediball are whiter than those of ‘Annabelle’ when they open, and slower to turn their mature shade of green. My advice to gardeners who are martyrs to their drooping, mud-spattered ‘Annabelle’ blossoms is to rip them out and replace them with her far superior offspring: Incrediball! And every new garden should have at least one clump of Incrediball, if only for its long season of bloom (from early summer to frost), resistance to serious disease or insect pests and easy maintenance.
A friend since childhood, when Sandra Carr-Harris came up to Lake Simcoe for a visit a couple of weeks ago, I asked her to pose with Incrediball to provide scale. Currently the proprietor of Astra Salon in Toronto, she obliged without too much arm-twisting, but then, that’s what friends are for!