By JOE LAMP’L
Asking me to choose my favorite plant is like asking which is my favorite child! A difficult question to answer, but since I’m not at risk to damaging fragile little egos, I’d have to say one of my favorite plants is the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). The reason being this is a plant with four seasons of interest. I like that because it saves me time, energy and money as well. Once established it rewards me spring, summer, fall and winter.
Hydrangea quercifolia is native to the United States, growing about six to eight feet tall and sometimes topping out at 10 to 12 feet. The large, dark green leaves have silvery undersides and are shaped similarly to the Northern Red Oak from which it gets its common name. It is hardy from zones 5-9.
Cone shaped flowers can be as much as a foot long. The blooms are primarily white, gradually developing a pink blush then turning red as the seasons change. Individual florets can be single or double.
Although beautiful and lush throughout the spring and summer I look forward to the upcoming warm days and cool nights of October and November which turn the flowers red and the foliage into a myriad of yellow, orange, red, brown and burgundy shades. In protected locations the leaves persist for a long period before falling to reveal an irregular branching structure of exfoliating bark in cinnamon shades. The contrast against a white snowy blanket is stunning.
Oakleaf hydrangeas bloom best where summers are hot but prefer some afternoon shade. It its more northern range it can be planted in full sun. The greater the sun exposure the more prolific are the blooms and you’ll get the most spectacular fall color.
This shrub tolerates drier soil than its mophead cousins but cannot stand wet feet. Plant it in moist, well-drained, acidic soil that has been amended with compost or other organic matter. It can be used as a mass planting in shady woodland areas or as a specimen feature in the landscape.
Although pruning is rarely necessary, be sure to do so after blooming and before August. The following year’s flower buds are set in late summer and early fall. “Deadhead” old blossoms anytime by simply snipping them off. I like to leave the flowers on the plant to enjoy into the winter months.
If you are cutting the blossoms for flower arrangements you can cut longer stems before August. After that only cut short stems or you risk losing blooms for next year.
You will find that oakleaf hydrangeas are relatively pest and disease free. This is another plus in my book because it means plants will keep looking and performing their best all year round without the need for any chemical intervention (always a last resort in my book).
‘Alice’ is a beautiful selection with single white flowers.
‘Snowflake’ is probably the most popular of the double flowered varieties. Its creamy white blooms can get up to a foot long.
‘Pee Wee’ is a compact form growing about four feet high and three feet wide.
‘Little Honey’ has golden foliage in the spring, changing to chartreuse then green with beautiful burgundy red fall color.
Indeed, oakleaf hydrangeas are a staple in my gardens. Hardy throughout many parts of the country, they’re beautiful year round with stunning foliage, beautiful flowers and interesting bark. They’re pest and disease resistant, bloom in shade and they’re extremely carefree. What more could we ask of such a plant for our gardens and landscapes?