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Oakleaf Hydrangeas

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Photo of oakleaf hydrangea blooms.

Photo of oakleaf hydrangea shrub's blooms.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Oakleaf Hydrangeas:

Plant taxonomy classifies oakleaf hydrangeas as Hydrangea quercifolia. This is a case where the Latin genus name (Hydrangea) is so commonly used that it essentially doubles as a common name; when used as a common name, I don't capitalize the word. The cultivar that I have grown is 'Snow Queen.' For research purposes, note that the common name for these plants is sometimes given as "oak leaf" hydrangeas (two words, instead of one).

Plant Type:

Oakleaf hydrangeas are flowering deciduous shrubs.

Characteristics:

In summer, 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' and a spread of 4'-6', but can grow to be larger than that. They are multi-stemmed shrubs, and the branches can shoot out from the center in any direction. Exfoliating bark offers winter interest, as well as spring interest (before the plant fully leafs out).

Planting Zones for Oakleaf Hydrangeas:

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

Sun and Soil Requirements for Oakleaf Hydrangeas:

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 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.

Uses in Landscaping:

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.

Pruning, Care for Oakleaf Hydrangeas:

Oakleaf hydrangea shrubs require little pruning: if a bush suffers damage (e.g., winter die-back), prune down to just below the damage. Mulch to keep the roots cool in summer, especially in hot regions.

Outstanding Feature of Oakleaf Hydrangeas:

While the shape of their leaves is their distinguishing feature, the outstanding feature of oakleaf hydrangea bushes 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're 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're 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.



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