Heavenly Hydrangeas

With billowing clouds of white flowers, these native shrubs will lift your garden to higher ground.
Gene B. Bussell

In the woodlands of the Deep South grows one of the finest hydrangeas in the world, one with a truly Southern soul. Beginning in late spring and continuing through early summer, the white blossoms of oakleaf hydrangeas ( Hydrangea quercifolia) illuminate the forests. Their creamy spires rise up and wave in the wind, welcoming blue skies. Though the blossoms would be enough to satisfy most, these elegant deciduous shrubs offer something special throughout the year and deserve a generous place in your garden.

A Show for Every Season
One of the best things about oakleaf hydrangeas is that they perform in winter, spring, summer, and fall. When the days are blustery and cold, the cinnamon-colored peeling bark adds a bit of warmth. As the light lengthens, richly textured, oak-shaped leaves emerge bright green to greet spring. When the weather warms, cone-shaped blooms appear when few other shrubs are flowering. Its blossoms continue to fill the air with clouds of coolness to lessen the heat of summer as the mercury soars. Finally, autumn arrives, and the leaves slowly begin to turn brilliant reds, oranges, and maroons. For weeks, they salute the fall with a kaleidoscope of colors.

Hundreds of Hydrangeas
Selections of oakleaf hydrangea have proved more popular than the species itself. Each has its own merits, but all are great in the garden.

'Snowflake' may be the most popular. With its impressive size and large flowers, this shrub certainly makes a strong statement. When the blossoms emerge, they're a pale green, though they gradually turn white. As the flowers mature, they arch over and slowly fade to a rosy pink. New blooms continue to form as the older ones fade, creating a nice multicolored effect that lasts for weeks. The flowers eventually turn a rich, warm brown as the summer wanes.

 

If you need a little balance in your life, plant a hedge of 'Harmony' hydrangeas. The blooms are often so large and heavy that they cause the branches to teeter to the ground. A well-established planting will stop cars when it's in full bloom.

Joan and Jack Fagan of Homewood, Alabama, love their 'Harmony' oakleaf hydrangeas. Jack says, "I think they're great and not a lot of work." He has actually rooted a few by placing a brick over a branch lying on the ground. It takes a couple of years, but eventually the plant develops roots under the brick, creating an entirely new plant. Once the branch is rooted, he cuts it from the mother plant and transplants it to a new spot in his yard.

'Pee Wee' is a smaller selection, perfect for the compact spaces of suburban or urban gardens. This plant is perfectly at home in front of a low wall or gracing a large terra-cotta container. Its leaves turn a deep wine color in the fall and often persist till spring.

What They Need
When planting oakleaf hydrangeas, the most important thing is to make sure that they're planted in well-drained soil. "Good drainage is key," says nurseryman Eddie Aldridge of Hoover, Alabama, who introduced 'Snowflake' and 'Harmony' to the gardening world. He recommends locations with morning sunshine and shade after 2 p.m. "It's very important to give them protection from the late-afternoon sun."

Eddie also says hydrangeas are not too picky about the soil, but they do appreciate a bit of peat moss to retain moisture. It also helps keep the soil acid, which they prefer. Once established, oakleaf hydrangeas can tolerate drought, though they will definitely appreciate an additional drink during extended periods without rain. Mulches, such as pine straw or leaves, will also help the soil retain valuable moisture.

What's more, you've got to give them lots of room to grow so they can reach their full potential. "I'm a spacer," Eddie admits. "I like to space plants so they can mature." If you crowd hydrangeas, you will end up pruning them and sacrificing their graceful form.

 

A Hydrangea Here, a Hydrangea There...
So how do you use oakleaf hydrangeas in your own landscape? First, choose a selection that will best fit the space of your garden. The ones listed in the chart give a range of sizes from large to small. The bigger selections such as 'Alice' really need extra room to grow. These look especially great planted en masse along woodland edges. A medium selection such as 'Snow Queen' can find a home in most any garden. Its best traits are its size and blooms, which are held straight up and do not weigh down branches.

The coarse texture of oakleaf hydrangeas makes them well suited for use near natural stone outcrops. Rustic stone walls and paths and brick structures are also a complement. They look nice planted along fences, especially white ones that repeat the color of the flowers. 'Harmony' does very well when planted near rustic post fences, which provide support for the branches when they are heavy with flowers. Remember, too, when using oakleaf hydrangeas for hedges that they lose their leaves and will not screen out unwanted views during winter.

Excellent companion plants include broad-leaved evergreens, such as Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) or camellias, which have deep green leaves that help highlight hydrangeas' rough-textured foliage and flowers. They also work well with ground covers such as Southern shield fern (Thelypteris kunthii); its fine-textured leaves complement the native shrub. Accentuate their fall color by planting them near red maples or sourwoods (Oxydendrum arboreum) for a riotous show.

Revered throughout the South, oakleaf hydrangeas are particularly cherished in Alabama, where they hold the title of official state wildflower. "Hydrangeas are the first plant I remember," says Eddie, a native Alabamian who grew up working in his father's nursery. "I just love them. The appearance is outstanding."

To see these hydrangeas and more, visit Aldridge Gardens in Hoover, Alabama. Aldridge Gardens is a newly opened, 30-acre botanical garden featuring the genus Hydrangea. Peak bloom times for oakleaf hydrangeas occur from late May into June. For more information call (205) 682-8019, or visit their Web site at www.aldridgegardens.com.