Oakleaf hydrangeas are found growing naturally in the woods

  • Oakleaf hydrangeas offer brilliant color in the fall landscape.

    Oakleaf hydrangeas offer brilliant color in the fall landscape. Photos Courtesy of Diana Stoll

  • Large cone-shaped clusters of white flowers dress up the shrub in summer.

    Large cone-shaped clusters of white flowers dress up the shrub in summer.

By Diana Stoll
Posted5/31/2020 7:00 AM

Hydrangeas are all the rage, a horticultural trend showing no signs of slowing. Year after year, breeders come up with new cultivars with improved blooming, increased hardiness and a range of sizes to fit every garden.

While I love them all, I wish oakleaf hydrangeas garnered the same attention of breeders as the bigleaf and panicle types. As long as a gardener has a bit of shade, oakleaf hydrangeas belong in the garden for a variety of reasons.


Hydrangea quercifolia, as oakleaf hydrangea is botanically named, is a gorgeous native understory shrub with dark green leaves that resemble oak leaves, and large, cone-shaped clusters of white flowers. They are found growing naturally in moist woods, along streams and in wooded ravines. Cold hardy to Zone 5, they are easy to grow in well-drained soil that has been amended with organic matter. They prefer consistent moisture but are relatively drought tolerant once established. Mulch around these shrubs helps the soil retain moisture.

Oakleaf hydrangeas adapt to a variety of light conditions, but best fall foliage color is achieved and the most flowers are produced when they are planted in a location where they receive direct morning sunlight and shade in the afternoon. However, they will still perform satisfactorily in more shade.

Oakleaf hydrangeas are rarely bothered by pests or disease and require little maintenance. If plants need pruning (and they rarely do), it should be done immediately after they finish flowering. Plants bloom on the previous year's growth so pruning at the right time is important to avoid removing the buds for the following year's flowers.

In their native habitats, oakleaf hydrangeas grow about 6 feet tall, but if the species is too tall or too small, there are several cultivars available at your local garden center. Munchkin, Pee Wee, Ruby Slippers and Sikes Dwarf are best for smaller gardens. They grow 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Snow Queen and Snowflake are mid-size varieties, growing 8 feet tall and wide. If large shrubs are needed for specimen plants or the back of large borders, the giants of the family, Alice and Harmony, reach a height and spread of 10 feet.

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Oakleaf hydrangeas offer something their cousins, bigleaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla) and panicle hydrangeas (H. paniculata) do not. They offer interest in the landscape all four seasons. Large, dark green, lobed leaves, that look like those on an oak tree, emerge in spring and remain attractive, serving as a backdrop for the huge, pyramidal-shaped clusters of flowers in summer. They begin blooming creamy-white and age to shades of dusty pink or ruby red in fall, depending on the variety.

The foliage turns burgundy, gold, orange, red and brown in the fall, setting the garden ablaze. When the leaves finally give way to winter, the cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark is revealed.

If there is room in your landscape for one more hydrangea, consider adding a cultivar of the oakleaf hydrangea. You will enjoy its flowers in summer, fall foliage and unique peeling bark in winter.

• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist, garden writer and speaker. She blogs at gardenwithdiana.com.

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