Paul’s Plant Picks: Week 1 Oakleaf Hydrangea

Paul’s Plant Pick

This is the first installment in a series that’s likely to last a while. After all, the list of plants I love is long and includes members of essentially every plant group. But I’m going to kick things off with what I consider to be the absolute best plant for area gardens, one that happens to be native to the southeastern United States.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

If I could have only one plant in my garden, it would be an oakleaf hydrangea. If that’s not a testament to my love of this plant I don’t know what is. And when you consider its many attributes – including incredible ease of care – I think you’ll agree it’s a great choice for just about any garden.

For starters, and unlike every other hydrangea on the market, the oakleaf hydrangea can be grown in shade OR sun. Protection from the afternoon sun is ideal, but not altogether necessary if you keep the soil moist during the summer months. Also ideal – but not entirely necessary – is rich, well-drained soil with a slightly acidic pH. However, I’ve had total success growing oakleaf hydrangeas in fairly heavy and slightly alkaline soils as well. In other words, this is a very adaptable plant, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much.

But there’s more to like than this hydrangea’s adaptability. Take, for instance, the gorgeous leaves it produces in early spring. They start out light green with a silvery-white underside, turn a little darker green as time goes on, and then turn red, bronze, and even slightly purple in fall. The leaves resemble those of oaks, which is where this hydrangea gets its name (Quercus = oak and folium = leaf.)

Then there are the flowers, which arrive in May as huge, upright panicles. Most oakleaf hydrangeas bloom white, but ‘Ruby Slippers’ blooms a beautiful reddish pink. (Note: pH does not affect flower color.)The flowers are born on old wood, so the time to prune is after they flower. Personally, I like the look of the flowers even after they’ve faded, so I usually leave them on until late fall (they make great dried arrangements!). And unless I spot damaged, dead, or diseased wood I don’t bother with pruning.

Oh and let’s not forget the bark, which peels with age and turns a cinnamon-brown along the way, making this deciduous shrub interesting even in winter.

The classic oakleaf hydrangeas (such as ‘Alice’) will grow to around six- to eight-feet tall and six-feet wide. Smaller cultivars such as ‘Pee Wee’ grow to around three-feet tall and wide. All plants will sucker a bit, but not to the point of being the aggressive by any means. They look great as specimens or in groups, and once established are fairly drought tolerant.

I’ve never seen a pest attack an oakleaf hydrangea, although I’ve heard aphids can be an occasional problem. Leaf blight will sometimes appear late in the season, but it’s usually just a few weeks before leaf drop so I’ve never bothered trying to control it. Besides, it’s not that unsightly.

So let’s summarize:  easy to grow, low-maintenance, native, adaptable, tough, nearly pest and disease free, beautiful foliage and flowers.

Need I say more? Then what are you waiting for?