Planning for Drought – Oakleaf Hydrangea

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For years the experts have been telling us about the benefits of using native plants in our yards and gardens. Native plants are those that occur naturally in a regional area. Native species have evolved over time to thrive with biological and physical factors specific to their regions such as soil, climate, and rainfall.

Native plants provide food and shelter for native wildlife and help to restore regional landscapes. They generally thrive with the least care and create a sense of place.\

Using native plants promotes wise stewardship of the land and conservation for our natural areas. Native species are members of a community of plants, animals, and micro-organisms that keep each other in check and won’t harm natural areas.Assess your local site conditions and select compatible plants whose ultimate size and shape fit your needs. Using a variety of plants provides a more diverse wildlife habitat and more seasonal interest, and makes pest and disease damage less noticeable. A multi-layered approach to your yard (e.g., using grass, ground cover, bushes or shrubs, and trees of different heights) creates a diverse habitat and provides more home cooling ability and cover for wildlife that utilizes plants in different ways.

The oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifoliais) is one of the few hydrangeas native to the United States. It is a dramatic, white-blooming shrub with four seasons of interest. It blooms best in areas where summers are somewhat hot, but it is winter hardy farther north than the macrophylla (mophead). A tremendous advantage of the oakleaf is that it can thrive in much dryer locations than its cousins. The Oakleaf hydrangea can tolerate and even thrive in much sunnier areas than the mophead and lacecaps (macrophyllas) hydrangeas. While it can tolerate drought, it may not flower under the most extreme conditions.

Noted by 18th-century botanist William Bartram in his botanizing exploration from the Carolinas to the Florida panhandle in the 1770s, the oakleaf hydrangea was slow to enter British and American gardens Its ‘more natural’ form and texture, compared to the more common Hydrangea macrophylla cultivars, has increased its use in garden design across the country since the latter 20th century.
The plant gets its name from the shape of its beautiful, large leaves. The leaves are yellowish green to dark green on top and silvery-white underneath. They have three, five or seven pointed lobes and are 4–12 in. long and almost as wide. Their leaves resemble the foliage of many oak species, and thus the name which reflects this similarity. Plants in shade have larger leaves than those grown in sun. This hydrangea species’ leaves turn rich shades of red, bronze and purple in autumn that persist in winter accompanying the persistent dried flower-heads.

The plant’s flowers are borne in erect panicles 6–12 in. tall and 3–5 in. wide at the tips of branches. Flowers age in color from creamy white, aging to pink and by autumn and in winter are a dry, papery, rusty-brown. Fresh or dry, the blossoms of Hydrangea quercifolia are an attractive cut flower. Unlike other hydrangeas, the oakleaf’s flower color does not vary with soil pH.

With their brilliant fall foliage and long blooming period, oakleaf hydrangea is 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, used as a contrast with plants of a more delicate texture.

You can plant this spring planting or you can plan now to add oakleaf hydrangea to your landscape this fall. When selecting a site for this plant, remember that the oakleaf hydrangea is more temperamental about “wet feet” than the other hydrangeas. Make sure that the oakleaf gets excellent drainage in the area in which it is planted or the roots may rot. This is especially true when it is first planted. After the oakleaf becomes established, it is very easy to grow.

Although it is not always possible, it is best to purchase a hydrangea while it is in bloom. This allows you to see how the plant will bloom. Oakleaf hydrangea and the popular peegee hydrangea are the only hydrangeas with cone-shaped flower clusters; all the others have their flowers in ball-shaped or flat-topped clusters, called umbels.

Oakleaf hydrangea can be purchased in two forms: the single blossom types and the, so called, double-blossom type. ‘Snowflake’ is the most common variety with blooms that appear to be double.
There are several varieties of oakleaf hydrangea. Most common is Snowflake. This is a very special oakleaf hydrangea because the blooms appear to be double (technically they are referred to as “multiple florets”). Since the florets continue to open on each flower panicle throughout the summer, the bloom season is MUCH longer than that of the single varieties. When shopping for ‘Snowflake,’ do not confuse it with ‘Snow Queen,’ which is a beautiful single, but is NOT ‘Snowflake.’

‘Harmony’ is occasionally called the ‘Sheep’s Head Hydrangea’ for its full, double, voluptuous white blooms which have a heavy, drooping, dog-headed appearance. ‘Snow Queen’ and ‘Alice’ oakleaf hydrangeas are similar and close to the native Oakleaf in that they have single blooms. Suitable for smaller gardens are ‘Sikes Dwarf’ and ‘Pee Wee.’

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