In my part of the world, we are about to enter the green phase of early summer.
The daffodils, spring wildflowers and azaleas are long gone.
The roses have waned and the magnolias are on their way out.
Luckily the oakleaf hydrangeas have taken center stage.
In the wild, I usually see oakleaf hydrangea hanging off steep slopes or following ravines. There used to be a killer stand along the interstate coming into Vicksburg. They were draped all over the steep loess bluffs until MDOT decided to “clean up” – alas.
I feel fortunate to have seen this hydrangea in its natural habitat. Many know the oakleaf hydrangea only as a garden plant.
And what a fine garden plant it is!
Southern Living magazine’s garden editors have long admired the lovely natural stands of oakleaf hydrangeas that grace the city of Birmingham, Alabama. They have aggressively promoted it as a garden plant.
Due in part to these efforts, the oakleaf hydrangea is now one of the few native plants that is commonly available in the nursery trade.
Still - as Dr. Michael Dirr says “This is one of the most handsome plants that landscape designers have at their disposal, but it is not utilized to its fullest potential in American gardens…”
From a landscaper’s perspective, the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) does have a lot to offer.
The shrub itself has an attractive mounding habit. In late spring, it is adorned with pristine white flower panicles .
Each flower is actually an elongated conglomeration of tiny fertile flowers and showy sterile flowers. The sterile flowers consist of four sepals and have no pistils or stamens.
The fertile flowers have sexual parts but no petals or sepals. At maturity, they morph into tiny capsules full of seed.
The entire inflorescence dries on the plant – usually taking on a beautiful buff or pink color. I enjoy using them fresh or dried in summer flower arrangements.
The bold coarse textured leaves have pointed lobes reminiscent of a red oak. In Autumn, they turn scarlet or wine colored before shedding to reveal peeling cinnamon colored bark.
I once heard a woman call this plant okra (pronounced OAK-ree) hydrangea.
Depending on your point of view, the lobed leaves could be said to resemble those of an oak tree or an okra plant. I have decided to adopt “okra hydrangea” as my chosen common name. I think that it is quite appropriate for a true blue southern plant.