Hydrangeas and books

The skies are blah today—opaque, not giving away their secrets. The air, though still warmish, sports the first twinges of cold. People bend a bit more into their tasks, irretrievably committed to their autumnal routines of work and school, with the next vacation of any note months away—Christmas. It’s going to be a long haul.


The Friday market in Via Vincenzo Monti lifted my spirits though. The colors, the freshness, the abundance, the vendors hawking their wares—no room for grumpiness or worry or stress. And what was on sale at the florist’s stall? Branches of autumn leaves and dried hydrangea (ortensia, in Italian, hortensia in French)—the perfect ambassadors for a season I’m not waltzing into willingly.

My memories of hydrangea go way back. When I was small, we had blue ones in our yard on Signal Mountain, Tennessee. An almost impossible blue. (I think even then someone explained to me that the color had to do with the minerals in the soil. I wonder if that’s true. Do you know?) These hydrangeas, abundant and benignly neglected, helped form the barrier between us and the family with “too many children and too many dogs”— the kind of family that spilled out of their own house.


When I’d been in Italy a short time, I noticed that my mother-in-law made of this plant something altogether different. She harvested the branches when they were in full flower and hung them upside down to dry. Hers were blue, pink, purple, carnelian and leaf green. As they dried, they took on a slightly deeper, shadowier, duskier version of those colors. They remained in her house for years, and were beautiful until the very end.

In Auxerre, at the end of the summer, these flowers spill out of the florists’ windows, most commonly plopped—beautifully and unceremoniously—in galvanized watering cans and pitchers. And here, in Milan, in the more elegant flower shops, they are doing the same. The bruisy colors match my longing to cocoon in summer’s fading light.


Speaking of cocooning…

My last post was about Mom’s move to assisted living, and how graciously she was facing the change. I once asked her what gave her such stability in life, how she managed to approach life’s ups and downs with so much healthy curiosity and positivity. And she answered, “I’ve read a lot of books.”

When the mover came to give her an estimate on moving her things, he was left jaw-dropped at the amount of books she owned. Her cheerful comment, “I am books.”


I’ve never read Moby Dick. This year’s Fall resolution is to read it. When I was in junior high and high school, I couldn’t imagine anything duller than a book about a man obsessed with a whale. Now, like Ahab’s fixation on Moby, I am fixated on adding this great novel to my arsenal. Mom tipped me off on a beautiful illustrated edition. Pictures help. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Have a beautiful day, Charlotte

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10 Responses to Hydrangeas and books

  1. teresa elliott says:

    I watched my hydrangea struggle in inhospitable Texas for 5 years, never blooming, never quite giving up, and this year I gave it permission to “go back to Oregon,” our euphemism. Yes, the color can be adjusted by adding certain things to the soil. Kinda like a good soup.

  2. Janette says:

    Good for you that you are taking on Moby Dick! I pick it up once in a while and give it a go, but have never completed it. (As a weaver, I love the references to weaving the nets.) I will send you an email about why you should read it from a friend who is a Moby Dick scholar. I think you will enjoy it.

  3. dayphoto says:

    Yes the colors are reflections of the minerals or lack of in the soil. People have pounded iron nails next to the growing plant (not in the plant) to add color and have even sifted certain minerals in them to change the color. I think nothing is better than a dried hydrangea, which we cannot get here unless ordered over the internet, then they are very pricey.

    Good luck with Moby Dick..I too have never read him, although, many have given me the book to read I just couldn’t get my head around the idea of the book. I will be delighted to see how you do.

    As for the loss of summer…………I so understand. We had a horrid frost today which signaled summer’s demise.


  4. Thank you so so much! I got your email…and I am DETERMINED!!

  5. ron says:

    i’ve heard it’s the pH, or amount of acidity, in the water that affects the colors. that’s what my little buttercup tells me — with authority. she drinks lots of water that’s been pH balanced (not sure if the “H” is supposed to be capitalized, but i like it) and her aura is a lovely, healthy lavender. and moby dick lived in water that was very salty. so there’s that.

  6. I’d never thought of drying hydrangeas… must remember to give it a go (when it comes around to autumn here). Your market photos are beautiful!

  7. I love hydrangeas and I’ve just noticed them in the florist shops around Milan. Back home in Sydney, Australia we grew a beautiful white variety. They were my favourite plants in our little garden.

  8. Our cousin in South CArolina has the most beautiful hydrangeas a beautiful dark blue. I thought it was a new variety until she pulled back some branches and showed me her secret: the morning’s coffee grounds tossed under the bushes every day.

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