Though commonly available in local garden centers for at least the past ten to fifteen years, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), at right, is far from common in Central New York landscapes and gardens.
This is unfortunate, because this medium-sized shrub, which is native to the open woodlands of the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, Georgia and west to Alabama (the state's official "wildflower") and Mississippi, offers almost everything you could want in a landscape plant, including:
To begin, the plant gets its name from its large, oak-like leaves. From the picture at left you can see that they're very large - often eight to ten inches long and wide, adding texture to a garden even when the plant is not in bloom.
Next, the cream-colored, early July flowers, technically "panicles," are also very large, often ten inches long and four to six inches wide at their base. The flowers retain their initial color through much of July, then gradually fade through pink from August into September, before drying to tan in October. The result is that the flowers, alone, provide interest in the garden for the better part of three to four months!
Later in the season, the leaves turn a very deep burgundy, with hints of scarlet and even a trace of yellow in spots, below left. The effect is stunning, especially when set against an evergreen backdrop or contrasted with a plant having bright yellow fall foliage!
The plant continues to provide interest in the garden as its peeling, cinnamon-colored bark is attractive when draped with new-fallen snow.
While I've seen this plant grow more than ten feet tall and wide in Washington, D.C., I think five to eight feet tall and wide is more likely here in Central New York. If it gets a little out-of-bounds, simply cut off the offending branch at the point where it attaches to a larger branch in July, red line in photo below right. With no more than four or five snips, it's easy to reduce the height and width of this plant by a foot, or more.
Finally, one of the very best features of this shrub is that it can deliver all of the above ornamental traits in very shady spots in your landscape or garden. In fact, we have one growing against the north side of our home where it hasn't received a ray of direct sunlight in ten years and it's reliably covered with blooms every July 4th!