Sunday, November 29, 2015

Oakleaf Hydrangea, A Four Season Shrub

Double flowering form in mid-May
There aren’t many plants that can look good in all four seasons. One might say that an evergreen plant would be such a plant, but that seems like cheating. 

Our native oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) manages to look good year round, even when it doesn’t have leaves! This is the time of year that I really appreciate it.

Oakleaf hydrangea is native to the central and western parts of Georgia. It was discovered in 1775 by William Bartram as he travelled through Crawford County, Georgia. 

His journal included a sketch and these words: 

NEXT day we travelled about twenty miles farther, crossing two considerable creeks named Great and Little Tobosochte, and at evening encamped close by a beautiful large brook called Sweet Water, the glittering wavy flood passing along actively over a bed of pebbles and gravel. The territory through which we passed from the banks of the Oakmulge to this place, exhibited a delightful diversified rural scene, and promises a happy, fruitful and salubrious region, when cultivated by industrious inhabitants, generally ridges of low swelling hills and plains supporting grand forests, vast Cane meadows, savannas and verdant lawns.
I OBSERVED here a very singular and beautiful shrub, which I suppose is a species of Hydrangia (H. quercifolia.) It grows in coppices or clumps near or on the banks of rivers and creeks; many stems usually arise from a root, spreading itself greatly on all sides by suckers or offsets; the stems grow five or six feet high, declining or diverging from each other, and are covered with several barks or rinds, the last of which being of a cinerious dirt colour and very thin, at a certain age of the stems or shoots, cracks through to the next bark, and is peeled off by the winds, discovering the under, smooth, dark reddish brown bark, which also cracks and peels off the next year, in like manner as the former; thus every year forming a new bark; the stems divide regularly or oppositely, though the branches are crooked or wreathe about horizontally, and these again divide, forming others which terminate with large heavy pannicles or thyrsi of flowers, but these flowers are of two kinds; the numerous partial spikes which compose the pannicles and consist of a multitude of very small fruitful flowers, terminate with one or more very large expansive neutral or mock flowers, standing on a long, slender, stiff peduncle; these flowers are composed of four broad oval petals or segments, of a dark rose or crimson colour at first, but as they become older acquire a deeper red or purplish hue, and lastly are of a brown or ferruginous colour; these have no perfect parts of generation of either sex, but discover in their centre two, three or four papiliae or rudiments; these neutral flowers, with the whole pannicle, are truly permanent, remaining on the plant for years, until they dry and decay; the leaves which clothe the plants are very large, pinnatifid or palmated and serrated, or toothed, very much resembling the leaves of some of our Oaks; they sit opposite, supported by slender petioles and are of a fine, full green colour.
Oakleaf hydrangea is a fine garden shrub, one of the best used native shrubs in the nursery trade. Quite a few cultivars have been created to showcase dwarf qualities, different color forms and fancy flowers. The dwarf forms - such as ‘Pee Wee,’ ‘Sikes Dwarf,’ ‘Little Honey,’ ‘Ruby Slippers’ and ‘Munchkin’ - provide choices for the smaller garden since the species form grows to 8 feet tall and wide.

The flowers age to pink and remain on the plant in summer
The flowers are very popular with native insects. The fertile flowers are located inside the panicle (the showy flowers are sterile), but the pollinators (bees and beetles) know where to find them. The seeds are small and dry. Try collecting them and growing a few babies. You can also propagate the shrub from cuttings taken in the spring or by layering branches.

The four seasons of interest can be described as follows:

Spring – the soft gray-green leaves open before the flowers, oppositely arranged like two hands in prayer. The flowers bloom in very late spring, lush panicles of fertile and sterile flowers in creamy white.
Summer – strikingly large leaves offer handsome foliage all summer, accompanied by the still present flower panicles which have now transitioned to a dusky pink.
Fall – the leaves change to a variety of colors, even on the same plant. Some plants have bright leaf colors while others have muted shades of yellow, pink and russet. All are gorgeous. Flower panicles can still be present, now faded to the color of old lace.
Winter – while the leaves are late to fall, eventually they do, revealing stems of exfoliating bark and large leaf buds poised for the spring. Flower panicles may break off or may remain all winter.

Faded flower and muted fall color

Brilliant fall color
The one downside to this shrub is that deer are very fond of it (as they are of all hydrangeas). Put it in a protected area if you have deer. Then sit back and congratulate yourself on your excellent selection each and every time that you see it.

Peeling bark is evident on older branches

Bartram text courtesy of: Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Embellished with Copper-Plates 
(spine) Bartram's Travels 

William Bartram
xxxiv, 522 p., ill.

Call number VC917 B29 (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) 

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