In June 1998, my family and I moved into our house on Meadowbrook Road. At the time, Oakleaf Hydrangea bushes lined the path to our front door. By 2005, they blocked our view through the front windows, hindered the growth of the other plantings, and crowded the flagstone walk. Because Oakleafs bloom on old wood, to cut them back would mean no blooms the following year. I read that I could cut about one third of the older, taller stems to the ground each year. The thinning seemed to revitalize them and they grew even larger. Unable to restrain their growth, we moved the 14 bushes from the north-facing front of the house, where they had morning sun and afternoon shade, to the southern exposed back of the house, where they had sun most of the afternoon. The twelve by fourteen foot bed in which we planted the oakleafs, slopes down the hill, away from the house, and is bordered on one side by flagstone steps.
Although I can look down on the hydrangea bed from my bedroom window, and I see them from the kitchen table at every meal, I never gave them the attention or respect they deserved, until this assignment. I feel particularly bad about this neglect because their flowers have earned me at least two blue ribbons in flower shows and shared their beauty in and out of our home.
I belong to the Huntingdon Valley Garden Club and we have three flower shows each year, usually in the spring and fall and always on Tuesdays, which means, on the Mondays before, I comb my yard for plant material or run to Whole Foods. The big, white flowers of the Oakleaf Hydrangea are beautiful in summer, but I prefer the dry, brown flowers of autumn. Not only do the decorative blooms offer large clusters of flowers, which are great in large arrangements, but also, the small individual flowers are perfect for miniature designs. Big or small, the blooms are lightweight and do not need water, and therefore, can grace vases that do not hold water. Mostly, I cut short stems, above next year’s buds, so that I do not risk losing next years blooms.
Because I have taken these handsome shrubs for granted for 16 years, I will quote Michael A. Dirr’s observations to start:
“The full rounded-mounded outline, lobed leaves, and magnificent white flowers provide full measure for the landscape dollar. The dark green, three-to-seven-lobed leaves, are 3 to 8 inches long and wide, and turn rich burgundy in fall and may persist into December. The 4 to 12 inch long, paniculate inflorescences open in June and last for three to four weeks, often developing purplish pink coloration with age.”
Dirr also says that Hydragnea quercifolia grow in full sun to partial shade and are easily transplanted from a container or the field. Hence, our successful transplanting.
I do remember, in summer, birds and butterflies landing on the oakleafs and, on windy days, the spectacular blooms swaying above the bright green foliage. Then, in August, the leaves starting to darken and the flowers fading, and by September, the foliage displaying touches of autumn color.
With the still warm days but cooler nights of October, and my new observation skills, I noted that the oak-leaf-shaped, leaves were simple, leathery, and had a pinnate vein pattern. Most of the leaves were spotted with red, gold around the edges, or faded to orange: but the leaves in protected locations, facing the house and inside the mass of foliage, continued to hold their dark green color. The flowers were now a warm beige color, and they seemed to float above the changing foliage on stiff stems. By Halloween, the leaves were brilliant red, dark orange, and deep purple colors. In these dramatic colors, the veins of the leaves appeared white and were more noticeable. From a distance, the graceful mounding shape was a mass of stunning fall color, with dignified flowers pointing in every direction.
Online research revealed that the panicles are actually cone-shaped corymbs, made up of lots of sterile flowers with just a few fertile flowers hidden within. The heads last so long because the flowers are sterile and do not have to produce fruits or seeds. And, according to pollinator.org, flies and wasps pollinate the flowers.
By November, the sepals on the panicles seemed to shrink away from each other making the darker brown corymbs beneath more noticeable. More and more of the leaves were a rich burgundy color, many browning around the edges, and some curling on the ground. As Thanksgiving approached and temperatures dropped, the oakleafs went through an awkward phase. The full and lush panicles of summer were brown and paper-like, and the bright green leaves that had changed to brilliant colors, hung limp, or curled on the ground. However, there was a glimpse of the winter interest to come. Enough leaves had fallen to reveal the branching structure beneath. The multi-stemmed shrubs had branches shooting out at all angles with exfoliating bark in shades of cinnamon and nutmeg.
The Hydrangea quercifolia transforms gloriously throughout the seasons, are native to the US, and the deer do not touch them. I never weed or prune, and yet, I have an endless supply of flowers. It is no wonder that I take these plants for granted.