Types of Hydrangeas

Survey of the "Shrubs of Summer"

Lacecap hydrangea bloom.
Example of a lacecap hydrangea flower head.

KenWiedemann/Getty Images

The world of Hydrangea shrubs is nothing if not diverse. Most types grow in shrub form—but one type is a vine and another is pruned so as to assume a tree-like appearance. The genus includes bushes native to North America, but the Far East is rich in its own representatives. Technically, evergreen types do exist, but the hydrangeas widely grown by gardeners are deciduous.

Some perform best in partial shade, but others can profit from a bit more sunlight. A most intriguing fact about hydrangeas is that, with some types, the very same plant can bear either pink or blue flowers, depending upon the soil in which it is growing. Here are nine examples of great hydrangeas you can grow to beautify your summer yard.

A Bigleaf, Mophead Type: Nikko Blue

It is from the bigleaf (macrophylla) group that the color-changing wonders of the hydrangea world hail, the shrubs whose flowers will be pink in alkaline soils, blue in acidic soils. This kind grows in shrub form; it can be further divided into types with "mophead" flower heads and types with "lacecap" flower heads (Nikko Blue is a mophead). Mopheads are so called because the heads are just big, clunky masses of blooms, whereas lacecaps are more delicate (like fabric with a lace).

Another Bigleaf, Mophead Type: Rhapsody Blue

Because bigleaf varieties are chameleons, you can't take their colors for granted. That's why you shouldn't become complacent and think that buying a Rhapsody Blue means that, automatically, you are going to have a bush with blue flowers right away. Depending on your soil conditions, you may have to work at it for a while. Rhapsody Blue is another mophead.

A Bigleaf, Lacecap Type: Lady in Red

Lady in Red is a lacecap. A lacecap flower head looks like a flat circle of tightly-packed buds surrounded by a loose ring of fully-opened flowers. But those "buds" in the center are actually the fertile flowers of the plant, and the bigger, prettier outer "flowers" are just sterile sepals. Mountain hydrangea (H. serrata) is a group especially known for this kind of flower head, but H. macrophylla also has its examples.

Lady in Red is compact (2 feet tall and 3 feet wide), and its red flowers offer a nice change of pace for gardeners tired of hydrangeas that bloom in white, pink, purple, or blue. But it offers interest beyond floral color, bearing red stems, red-veined leaves, and purplish fall foliage.

A Panicle Type: PeeGee

While sometimes referred to as "tree hydrangeas," PeeGees are actually shrubs and better referred to as "panicle" (paniculata) hydrangeas. While not trees, they can be pruned so as to have a single trunk (you can train these hydrangea shrubs to be "standards") and thereby assume a tree-like appearance. Consequently, while the panicles (flower heads) aren't colorful and the leaves are hum-drum, this is the type you'll want to grow when you need a specimen to make a statement with its striking plant form.

Another Panicle Type: Bobo

Bobo, by contrast, won't remind anyone of a tree. Bobo measures just 3 feet x 3 feet. If you have a small yard and wish to shoehorn one more plant into it in a tight space, this dwarf could be your answer.

A Type for Fall Foliage: Oakleaf

The whole genus is blessed with flower heads that dry for you—right on the living shrub —adding a bit of visual interest to your fall yard. But great fall foliage is not a feature for which these shrubs are generally known. You can throw out that general rule when it comes to the oakleaf type (quercifolia), which is an excellent shrub for fall color. The leaves of this shrub turn purple, orangey-bronze, or red in the fall.

A Vine Type: Climbing Hydrangea

You vine lovers are probably most interested in the type of hydrangea plant that grows as a vine. But climbing hydrangeas (H. anomala petiolaris) are not just vines—they're flowering vines that grow well in the shade, year after year. If you've ever surveyed the list of vines that meet those qualifications, you know that the pickings are pretty slim (at least in the North). This vine will become a fixture in your shade garden.

Smooth Types of Hydrangeas

Like the bigleaf kinds, the group of "smooth" hydrangeas (arborescens) is composed of shrubs, and there's nothing remarkable about the form or the leaves: no vines or tree look-alikes here, no leaves shaped like oak leaves that turn pretty colors in autumn. But there's something you need to know about this group that distinguishes it from the typical hydrangea: It blooms on new wood. For those of you who panic over pruning, this is no insignificant fact.

Annabelle was long the head honcho of this collection, valued for its large flower heads. These impressive balls of white flowers earned Annabelle the nickname, "snowball bush" (but other plants also go by that name, including the snowball viburnum, V. opulus). There are, however, two drawbacks to Annabelle:

  • It comes only in the color, white.
  • Its branches often aren't strong enough to support the weight of its flower heads, flopping over when they become rain-drenched.

Enter two newer shrubs, inspired by the beauty of Annabelle, yet determined to correct her flaws:

Invincibelle Spirit addresses the color issue: It's the "pink Annabelle." Incrediball, meanwhile, is supposed to tackle the flopping problem, being touted as the "no-flop Annabelle," despite the fact that its flower heads are even bigger than Annabelle's. Droop-proof or not, Incrediball's large, puffy, white flower heads pleasantly hover like clouds over the shrub's foliage.

Whatever types you select, hydrangeas play such an important part in the mid-summer landscape for those who wish to achieve a continuous sequence of bloom that it is fair to call them "the shrubs of summer." If you're looking for something to plug the gap between when the lilacs (Syringa spp.) stop blooming and the rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) begins, hydrangeas could be the answer for you.