One of my favorite plants is flowering in my yard right now. I love this plant. It is bold, in your face and it passes the multiple seasons of interest test. Every time I see this bloom I am taken back to a forest in Mississippi. My sister and I were on our way back from a road trip to Louisiana, camping the whole time. We stopped in a state park along the Natchez Trace Parkway to take in the sights and stretch our legs following a short hiking trail that seemed made for just such a purpose. We stuck our heads through holes in large trees taking ‘selfies’ before it was the thing to do, watched new-to-us very large spiders make their way along handrails we dared not touch. Suddenly I stop and utter a “do you see that?!” from under the hand clasped over my mouth. I am that person. I get so excited when I see plants I have only known in landscapes thriving in the wild, where they have not been planted where they just ARE because they belong there. Sort of like the experience I had in Greece with the Bear’s Breeches.
What is this southerner doing in my yard?
By now, my sister is quite used to these moments complete with outbursts of scientific names. I am sure these sound to her the way Charlie Brown’s teacher sounds to him. But I can’t help myself! Needless to say, my sister and I vary a touch in what we find exciting on adventures. We do intersect where southwest food and hops, yeast, water and barley are concerned. She is a good sport though, coming over to witness my latest ‘exciting’ find.
Oakleaf Hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) can be found in the wild in the southeast portion of the US, from North Carolina and Tennessee as far west as Louisiana and south to northwest corner of Florida.It is even the state wildflower of Alabama. If it is happy in those humid, warm states, just what is it doing in my (and many other) northeastern landscape? It seems just as tolerant of our cool weather as it is of the hot humid weather in which it evolved. Even this past winter’s many snows and below zero temperatures didn’t seem to phase these large shrubs. This could lead to a discussion regarding climate change and how eventually many of these southern plants will find the climate in the northeast conducive for growth and will slowly migrate up the east coast, just as Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) seem to be doing now to get away from the warmer temperatures. But I won’t go there…today. As Donald J Leopold writes in his book Native Plants of the Northeast A Guide for Gardening and Conservation “… this species is native to the eastern US and is such a fine shrub for shaded sites, where it does best. Just as one has to occasionally travel further south for great examples of some food and drink, some truly southern plant species are worth including here, and will thrive, in more northern gardens.”
This existence of this plant was initially documented by a north-easterner. 1700s botanist Mr. William Bartram resident of Philadelphia, found and named this plant during his travels around the southeast. After his explorations of the southeast, he wrote about the plants he found and sent the information over to Europe, where people were most fascinated with the natural wildlife of the new country. Of course his Philadelphia family got wind of these new-to-science plants and became fascinated with them as well.
Interesting any time of the year.
I am not sure when William Bartram happened upon this shrub in the woods of the southeast, but whatever season it happened to be I am sure he was impressed by the beauty of this plant. Oakleaf Hydrangea has four, count ’em, FOUR seasons of interest! This shrub is large (4-8 (sometimes 10) feet tall and wide) so be sure to give it plenty of room to grow if you decide to add it to your space.
New bright green growth and white flowers emerge.
Those large white flowers on the outside are infertile flowers – really just there as a billboard to attract insects to the less showy tine fertile flowers towards the inside of the panicle. Some of these flower spikes can me more than a foot in length!
The flowers still hang in there changing to a beautiful raffia color and the leaves, oh the leaves! They turn a deep maroon and persist through the fall sometimes even collecting a bit of snow before they fall to the ground.
Bold textures and exfoliating cinnamon colored bark add valuable interest to a winter landscape.
I encourage everyone to add one of these to their landscapes. Find a shady spot, plant this there and then get out in your yard every season to enjoy what it has to offer. No room for it? Take an adventure to the southeast to see it in the wild, rest assured whenever you visit you are sure to see a show.