Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Oakleaf Hydrangea for All Seasons

closeup of greenish maroon oakleaf hydrangea leaves with reddish brown dry flowers in fall

Hello fellow readers,

While it’s a wrap for gardening this year, there’s still beauty in our late-fall and winter gardens, thanks to plants with all-season interest. One of the standouts is one of my favorites—Oakleaf Hydrangeas in their glory now. Their husky oak-shaped leaves turn a mix of maroon and dark purple with bright red and bronze—some like Hydrangea quercifolia’ Alison’ turn a florescent reddish burgundy much like burning bush.

white flowering shurb with husky oak-shaped leaves along black curvy porch rails.

Oakleaf Hydrangea’s long-lasting bloom. Garden design by Mary Stone / Photo and garden loved by- Jacquie Larson

Oakleaf Hydrangeas are stunning in all seasons.

Even after the leaves fall, Oakleaf Hydrangeas are lovely, with exfoliating bark and dried flowers to adorn the winter landscape. In the spring, you’ll enjoy the unfurling dark green leaves rising above the beautiful ginger-colored bark.

Oakleaf Hydrangeas are not fussy handling a wide range of soil, though they prefer slightly acidic. Still, they can tolerate alkaline soil, and the pH does not affect the blooms’ color. And Oakleaf Hydrangeas stand up to road salt and salt spray. Along with other species of hydrangea, Rutgers University considers Oakleaf’s “C” in deer resistance – “Occasionally Severely Damaged.” However, they seem to less tasty than their cousins with softer leaves.

Oakleaf Hydrangeas are fuss-free and flexible.

They bloom white for six to eight weeks, beginning in June. Then shift to pink to purplish-pink depending on the species before drying to a lovely brown. They are gorgeous in a winter garden when snow dons fluffy white hats.

Hardy in zones 5 to 9, they can tolerate full sun here, unlike other hydrangeas. In warmer zones, they prefer morning sun and afternoon shade. One thing for sure they do not like wet feet, and so well-drained soil is required. But they can tolerate occasional dryness, unlike others, though moist soil is preferred.

Hydrangea quercifolia is native to Southeastern US, but native garden designs in the Northeast often feature them. The only officially native hydrangea to these parts is Smooth Hydrangea (H. arborescens), also called Wild Hydrangea. Unlike Smooth Hydrangea that blooms on new wood, Oakleaf’s bloom on old wood, so only prune them right after they bloom before new flower buds set to assure flowers next year. Isn’t that right, dear Curt? Don’t ask.

white flowering oakleaf hydrangea in front of a fine textured green leaf Japanese Malpe

Garden Design by Mary Stone / Photo and Garden Caregiving by Jacquie Larson

Garden Companions to Hydrangea quercifolia

The oak-shaped leaves offer a pleasing course texture to gardens. Fine-textured evergreen shrubs like Holly (Ilex) and Inkberry (Ilex glabra) make lovely neighbors. And companion perennials such as Pulmonaria (Lungwort) and Coral Bells (Heuchera) are beautiful in the foreground. There’s also Hosta, though deer candy, so deer spraying is in order.

Oakleaf Hydrangea’s rustic appearance makes them ideal for woodland gardens. Or as a specimen or informal hedge in more tailored gardens. There are many varieties in varying sizes from which to choose.

There’s an Oakleaf Hydrangea to fit every space.
maroon leaves and dark dusty pink dry flowers on an oakleaf hydrangea in fall

Munchkin Oakleaf Hydrangea in fall

The straight species, Hydrangea quercifolia, grows relatively quickly to a stately 12 to 14 feet tall and wide. They are irregularly shaped and quick to spread by suckering, meaning pushing out vertical shoots at their base. But you can prune the runners to prevent spreading. Or, let them root and share volunteers with friends.

‘Alice’ is the readily available variety that is most like the straight species. But if you prefer a more tidy, less loose appearance, then ‘Snowflake’ is right for you. Growing 5 to 8 feet high, she has long, 12 to 15-inch double flowers (extra flower petals).

For a smaller garden space, ‘Ruby Slipper’ is one of my favs, growing 3 to 4 feet. As its name describes, the white flowers shift to reddish-rose. Or there’s ‘Munchkin’ Oakleaf Hydrangea, whose flowers shift to a lighter pink. Smaller still is a little beauty named ‘Pee Wee’ that I stumbled upon this fall, adoring its petite 2 to 4-foot size.

Why it’s best to buy rather than pilfer :^)

While researching if there are legends related to Oakleaf Hydrangea, I came upon a hilarious story of two galivanting gardeners harvesting native Oakleaf’s off-road in precarious spots. Delirious with excitement over the value of their bounty, it wasn’t until the next day when they realized the extent of their injuries from rolling down slippery slopes, including cracked ribs and punctured lungs—a lesson to all of us.

Over the weekend, while walking on the Paulinskill Rail Trail, we came upon a Norway spruce that would make a perfect Christmas tree and a few smaller saplings nearby. One was small enough to hand dig.  Sorely tempted, justifying they will be crowded out by the trees nearby, I controlled myself. As much as we admire plants along the road or in the woods, leave them be. And buy them at your local nursery instead. Garden Dilemmas? (and now on your favorite Podcast App.)

Link to a previous column on When to Prune Hydrangea, Deer. 

A link to Darrell Norman’s hilarious story Beware stalking the wild hydrangea.

Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary

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