What’s native to the southeast US, has great red fall color and has huge white flowers that last all summer? It’s the bold oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).
I say bold, because with leaves as big as your hand, this is not a shrub for the timid. Sure you could be like everybody else and plant timid little meek girly shrubs like lilacs, burning bush, and viburnum. I say don’t be a wimp and plant a real shrub, one with big bold leave that cry’s out, “Hey I’m here and I won’t be ignored!”
Oakleaf hydrangea’s big and bold leaf
OK, that might be a little over the top. But in some ways it’s not. The oakleaf hydrangea’s leaves can be 8 inches long. Probably not a surprise, it’s leaf is shaped like an oak tree (Quercus).
What that big leaf does is create a bold texture when compared to the smaller leafs of other plants. Oakleaf hydrangea’s have a lot of “visual energy” that draws the eye to them. That bold texture makes the plant really standout.
The oakleaf hydrangea is truly an accent plant for the landscape due to its leaf texture during the summer. It may be too much for some borders, but by itself or in groupings it looks great in woodland style gardens.
Blooms come just when they are needed
After the spring blooms, flowers are a bit harder to find. When it flowers in mid-summer, Hydrangea quercifolia truly shines. White is not the most exciting flower color, but it is probably the one seen most often in nature. It thus looks the most natural and fits in almost all landscapes.
Another benefit of white flowers is that they are easy to see in dim light, such as in the evenings.
Oakleaf hydrangea cone shaped flowers start a nice pure white when they open in summer.
After a few weeks, they slowly color to a pale pink tone. Then in the fall they turn a nice tan color.
In my yard, the flower heads stay on the plants through most of winter. While a dried oakleaf hydrangea flower head can’t complete with a hybrid witch hazel in full bloom in January, they do still provide a nice winter interest, especially when set off with some evergreen ground cover.
Fall is another great season for Hydrangea quercifolia
After the flowers have done their thing in the summer, the bold leaves of this hydrangea turn a red to purple fall color that is a great complement to yellows and oranges of other plants. It is not a brilliant red like a burning bush, but instead is a very nice multi toned effect that evokes feelings of a woodland fall scene.
Exfoliating bark too
Oakleaf hydrangeas have upright growing stems with little branching. They grow multiple shoots that form mounded colonies not unlike red twig dogwoods.
The stems are brown and after a few years begin to exfoliate. This exposes a cinnamon brown colored bark that adds some color to the winter landscape.
They are great for massing, as accent plants in mixed borders and woodland gardens. I think they look best in the winter especially when they are in a bed of evergreen ground cover.
If they are in a mulched bed alone without evergreens nearby they can look a little bare and twiggy in the winter. However, in the summer they look great in a mulched woodland type area.
My favorite use would be planted throughout a woodland garden under a canopy of deciduous trees such as birch.
Pee Wee Oakleaf hydrangea ((Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Pee Wee’) – This is a smaller plant that gets 3′ by 3′ and have smaller leaves and flowers. Flowers get about 4-5 inches long.
Snow Queen Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Flemygea’) – This one grows 6′ by 6′. It has great flowers that don’t flop over like some of the regular ones and get 6 to 8 inches long. Dirr says it holds up well in full sun and is winter hardy down to at least -22 degrees. This is definitely one to look for if you are in zone 5.
Sikes Dwarf Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Sike’s Dwarf’) – This is another dwarf one that gets 3′ high and 4′ wide. It also has much smaller leaves than the species. Toss up between this and Pee Wee for small ones.
PLANT FACTS – Oakleaf Hydrangea
Scientific name: Hydrangea quercifolia
Pronunciation: hye-DRAN-jee-uh kwur-sif-FOLE-ee-uh
What zone is it hardy to: 5-9, in extremely cold winter’s flower buds may be damaged or the plants may die back to the ground, but will regrow stems from the roots.
Height: 4-6’, old specimens in the south can reach up to 10-12’
Width: 4-6’ wider with age and a lack of pruning
Growth rate: Slow to medium
Sunlight: Sun to shade, needs at least a few hours of sun for flowers. A great plant for a shaded spot or yard.
Cultural Requirements: Oakleaf hydrangea grows best in moist, well-drained, slightly acidic, organic rich soil but hey what doesn’t. They are native to limestone rock soils in the southern US and should do fine in most decent soils. Mulch is recommended for keeping roots cool and moist. Flowers on old wood and should be prune after flowering; remove winter-damaged stems as soon as leaves begin to emerge in spring.
Problems: Pretty trouble free except that deer love them.
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Is there any evergreen ground cover you would recommend to go with oakleaf hydrangeas? Bonus if it’s something native!
It would depend upon the exact growing conditions. Most of these are not “evergreen” in my climate but may be in yours. Carex plantaginea, Carex pennsylvanica, Pachysandra procumbens, could all work or if it is sunnier you could try Waldsteinia fragarioides which I am trying this year in my yard.
I hope you are still answering questions! I planted 3 Oakleaf hydrangea last Spring. The are about 3 ft tall now, nice green leaves and look good except for the blooms. They bloom in Spring this year with big white fluffs, but now they are brown fluffs and not so pretty. It has been hot here in Dallas. They have shade and surrounding plants are doing well. Did they get to little water? Or too much? Both are possible as we had a series of rains and I forgot my sprinkler was on at night for a couple of days. Then I slowed down on watering a bit just to make sure since some of my daylillies we looking over water (not near the hydrangea) and they look much better now.
Perfect Plants says
We love the oakleafs for their big beautiful blooms for many months at a time!
Joleen Dentlinger says
We just brought back a “shoot” from our friends’ plant in southern Indiana. We live in Iowa and need to know what procedure to use when transplanting it, this time of year. Should we just put it in a pot and keep it moist inside through the winter or just plant it outside? It is such a beautiful plant and we want to keep it that way.
I think I would keep it slightly moist in a protected but still cold spot, such as an unheated garage or shed.
It would not hurt to insulate the pot with some straw too so the roots stay even warmer.
Don’t overwater it, but don’t let it dry out either.
How often that would be would depend on what type of soil the plant is in. It might mean watering it once a month or less.
Linda Mann says
I live on the Eastern Shore of Md. Winter weather is not to bad. Thanks for the reply. I love this plant
Linda Mann says
I need to more my plants. Do I need to prune? How far back? What time of the year? I am afraid to move them because I am afraid they will die. Love this plant
Depending upon your climate you may want to wait till early Spring to move (if you are in zone 5). You don’t need to prune them, they may die back over winter, so just prune off obviously dead branches in the Spring. If they die to the ground, they should grow back from the base but it will be a bit later in the season.
Thank you for your quick reply!! Would it be OK for me to then prune SOME of the stems and branches and leave other stems/branches alone and those would still bloom next year?
I’ve let my oakleaf grow large and they have the reddish blooms still on the plant. It’s September now so when should I prune to ensure they bloom again next summer? In the early spring?
The flower buds developed on this season’s stems already for next year’s blooms. Prune hard every few years and miss flowers for one year and let it go the other years.
Sue Smythe says
After having my Oakleaf Hydrangea for many years (possibly 10), multiple shoots are coming up around the base of my Oakleaf Hydrangea. Should I remove these much smaller shoots or just leave them to grow as they please?
I’d just let them grow.
Ruth M says
Would the snow queen do ok about 10 feet from a 7 inch wide hickory tree?
Andrea Tischler says
Hi Jim, Thanks for the very informative article on Oakleaf Hydrangeas. This year, mine started blooming in a light pink color and have turned dark pink ( like your pictures of fall oak leafs. ). It is mid July. These plants are about 15 years old. We have had a very wet June and first week of July. We also have automatic sprinklers, so i don’t think they are drying out. Do you have any ideas or suggestions as to why this is happening and how to stop this in the future. I miss my white summer blooms. Thanks, Andrea
I would speculate that this is weather related. Either an impact from last years drought and heat when the dlower bud was forming or as you described the wetter than normal conditions this year as the flower was emerging. I would expect it to be more normal next year.