Oakleaf Hydrangeas

How to Grow This Summer-Blooming, Fall-Foliage Standout

Oakleaf hydrangea (image) is one of the better shrubs for fall foliage. Fall color is red.
Oakleaf hydrangea is one of the better shrubs for fall foliage. David Beaulieu

Taxonomy, Botanical Information for Oakleaf Hydrangeas

Plant taxonomy classifies oakleaf hydrangeas as Hydrangea quercifolia. This is a case where the Latin genus name (Hydrangea) is so widely used that it essentially doubles as a common name; when used in this manner, I do not capitalize. The cultivar that I have grown is 'Snow Queen,' a name suggestive of the white flowers produced by the plant during the summertime (see description below).

Another cultivar, 'Ruby Slippers' stays more compact, and its flowers age to a reddish color.

Oakleaf hydrangeas are classified botanically as flowering deciduous shrubs.

Traits of This Shrub

In summer, 'Snow Queen' oakleaf hydrangea flowers in clusters, and the white flowers fade to a pinkish-brown in fall; their floral display is extremely long lasting. But the plant's distinguishing characteristic is its oak leaf-shaped foliage. The leathery leaves are large and turn purple, orangey-bronze, or red in the fall. These shrubs routinely achieve a height of 4-6 feet and a spread of 4-6 feet, but they can grow to be larger than that. They are multi-stemmed shrubs, and the branches can shoot out from the center in any direction. Peeling bark offers some winter interest, as well as spring interest (before the plant fully leafs out in the spring, there is little visual interest outside of the bark).

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snow Queen' shrubs can be grown in USDA planting zones 5-9. The species plants are indigenous to the southeastern United States.

Oakleaf hydrangea shrubs are understory plants in the wild. So in the South, give them afternoon shade; in the North, oakleaf hydrangeas can get by with less shade.

Too much shade, in fact, may reduce the intensity of their fall foliage color. Grow them in a well-drained soil with a slightly acidic soil pH and plenty of humus.

Plant Care (Pruning), Uses in Landscaping

Oakleaf hydrangea shrubs usually require little pruning, unless you are trying to fit them into a location that is really to small for them (in which case you are perhaps guilty of poor plant selection). But if a bush suffers damage (for example, from winter die-back), prune down to just below the damage. If you do wish to prune, do so right after the blooming period, since this type of bush blooms on old wood. Mulch your bushes to keep the roots cool in summer, especially in hot regions.

With their brilliant fall foliage and long blooming period, oakleaf hydrangea shrubs are attractive enough to function as specimen plants. As understory shrubs in the wild, they are also appropriate in woodland gardens. Their big leaves give them a coarse plant texture, useful as a contrast with plants of a more delicate texture.

The dried flowers are used in crafts.

Outstanding Feature of Oakleaf Hydrangeas

While the shape of their leaves is their distinguishing feature, their fall color is the outstanding feature of oakleaf hydrangea bushes. Use them to supplement your most colorful trees for fall, thereby furnishing your yard with good fall color at more than one eye level. Their second best feature may well be their long "blooming" period. I put "blooming" in quotes because it is not actually petals that are anchoring the floral display, but rather sepals. Sepals are sterile; since they can't be pollinated, they can't go to seed. Exempt from the reproduction process, they are free to just "hang out" -- and provide your yard with color throughout the summer. The true flowers on oakleaf hydrangeas are those tiny ones you see behind the sepals.

Word Origin for Oakleaf Hydrangeas

I mentioned above that the scientific name for oakleaf hydrangeas is Hydrangea quercifolia. But how does that moniker break down, exactly? Well, we are all familiar with the Greek root hydr- as a reference to water, as in "hydrate." Meanwhile, angeon comes from the Greek for "vessel." Hydrangea seed pods supposedly resemble a water vessel? All I know is that most species require a lot of watering (oakleaf hydrangeas are an exception in this regard).

As for the species name, quercifolia literally means "oakleaf" in Latin -- thus explaining the common name, too: the leaves bear a resemblance to those found on oak trees.

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