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Oakleaf Hydrangea Is a Shrub for All Seasons

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Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) meets all the requirements of an excellent garden shrub: year-round interest; beautiful flowers; long bloom time; interesting foliage; and ease of care, including pruning.

The fall foliage of Gatsby Moon oakleaf hydrangea.

The fall foliage of Gatsby Moon oakleaf hydrangea.

One of a handful of Hydrangea species native to the United States, oakleaf hydrangea hails from the Southeast, where it occurs naturally along riverbanks and damp woodlands.

“It’s great for the garden because it’s a no-fuss plant,” said Lisa Anderson, a United States National Arboretum research geneticist specializing in Hydrangea quercifolia. This hydrangea isn’t too picky about light levels (though full sun brings out its best flowering and fall color), and while it likes moderate watering, it can tolerate drought once it’s established. And it’s a true beauty.

Gatsby Gal blooming in midsummer.

Gatsby Gal blooming in midsummer.

“Oakleaf hydrangea provides interest in the landscape throughout the year,” Lisa said. “Spring and summer bring tall, striking flowers and a wide variety of foliage colors; fall brings deep reddish-purple leaves and stately dry flower heads; and the peeling bark provides texture throughout the winter months.”

Oakleaf Hydrangea Companion Plants
Such prolonged interest makes the shrub fairly easy to incorporate into the garden. Its large, long-lasting summer flowers mix well, be they white or pink. Meanwhile, the big, bold-textured leaves (from which they gained their specific epithet and common name: quercifolia, oakleaf) make a good backdrop to lower-growing shrubs and herbaceous plants moving in and out of bloom.

Stacey Hirvela of Spring Meadow Nursery, the nursery behind Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs, suggested spring-flowering bulbs as an ideal early companion. “The emerging foliage (of oakleaf hydrangea) in spring is so unique,” she said. “By surrounding the plants with some showy daffodils, for instance, you’ll help draw attention to their fuzzy white leaf buds.” In later spring through summer, she recommended foliage perennials that provide contrast to the hydrangea’s large leaves.

“Because their overall texture is rather coarse, I think they look particularly nice with fine-textured plants like ferns—especially native ferns, and especially larger ones that are more in scale with the shrub,” Stacey said. She suggested Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) to skirt the shrub’s base, too. “It’s also a nice idea to site them in front of an evergreen to set off their dramatic branching and peeling bark in winter,” she added.

If you could find a complaint about H. quercifolia, it may be the species’s size, which can reach 12 feet tall and wide. Happily, breeders have worked to create smaller varieties so that this unique hydrangea can find a spot in smaller gardens. Proven Winners cultivar Gatsby Gal tops out at five or six feet, for instance. Gatsby Moon grows larger, at six to eight feet. 'Munchkin', 'Pee Wee' and 'Sikes Dwarf' are the smallest options, remaining around three to four feet tall and wide.

Oakleaf Hydrangea Facts

  • Hydrangea quercifolia is native to damp woods and riverbanks of the southeastern United States
  • Site in full sun to part shade
  • Full sun encourages the most flowers and best fall foliage color
  • Provide moderate moisture and good drainage
  • Like bigleaf hydrangea (H. macrophylla), oakleaf sets its flower buds in late summer; these open the following year. Avoid pruning it in fall, winter or spring or you will remove the flower buds
  • If pruning is desired, do so just after it flowers
  • Generally hardy in USDA Zones 6–9, with some cultivars rated to Zone 5
  • A northern winter’s cold can damage the flower buds or kill stems to the ground, so a thick winter mulching or burlap wrap is recommended in Zones 5 and 6, as is a location sheltered from winter winds

Buying and Siting Oakleaf Hydrangea
Stacey Hirvela of Spring Meadow Nursery offered this advice:

1. Oakleaf hydrangeas are kind of like wild animals. They grow slowly in containers, so they are typically more expensive than other species. They also dislike the restricted root space of the container environment. Don’t shy away from an oakleaf hydrangea that isn’t completely breathtaking in the pot. Once they’re in the ground, they can really come into their own, developing better habit and growing more quickly.

2. So many people think of hydrangeas as shade plants. While all hydrangeas will grow in shade, we do recommend at least half a day’s sun or filtered shade all day for the strongest stems, most flowers and best leaf and flower color. Oakleaf hydrangeas do seem to perform better in more shade than other types of hydrangeas, but you still won’t get their very best floral count and, especially, fall color with less than four hours of sun each day.

Images courtesy of Proven Winners.