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Okra Hydrangea

This 'Semmes Beauty' inflorescence contains both pristine white sterile florets and tiny creamy fertile florets.

I recently blogged about the exotic mophead hydrangea which I do dearly love.

My favorite hydrangea though is actually our native oakleaf hydrangea.

Hydrangea quercifolia is native to the southeastern United States and cold hardy to zone 5.

This shrub is usually found on wooded slopes growing in rich well drained soil.  It was first discovered and named by John Bartram in the late 1700’s When Bartram was exploring Georgia and Florida.

Oakleaf hydrangea or Okra (pronounced oak-ree) hydrangea has large lobed leaves similar in shape to a red oak or an okra plant.  The leaves are bold and hairy and often have wonderful burgundy fall color.

Older specimens develop peeling cinnamon colored bark.

Wild oakleaf hydrangeas are draped along the steep slopes on I-20 coming into Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Oakleaf hydrangea has a long cylindrical panicle shaped inflorescence.   It is pure white gradually taking on a pink hue as it dries on the plant.

The blossoms are composed of two types of florets.   Tiny inconspicuous fertile florets mature into small brown rounded seed capsules.   The more showy sterile florets are white and similar to paper cutouts.

These hydrangeas grow best if shaded during the hottest part of the day.   Eastern exposures with morning sun and afternoon shade are usually ideal.

Soil must have good drainage.   If soil drainage is less than perfect, plant on a slope or a slight mound so the rootball can shed water.

If soil is acid, add a little lime or a calcium containing fertilizer.  In the wild, plants thrive in soils with pH near neutral.

'Snowflake' blooms cheerfully in my front garden.

I have collected several forms of this beautiful native.  ‘Snowflake’ bears showy semi-double sterile flowers.  ‘Semmes Beauty’  is a large flowered selection from Mr. Tom Dodd.  I have also collected seed and have a form that I found along the Chunky River near Dunn’s Falls.

Like the mophead, this hydrangea blooms on old wood.  Plants can be pruned after flowering by heading back the taller stems to shape as needed.

Be sure to leave some stems with dried flowers, these will produce blooms for next year.

This hydrangea is so lovely that I would certainly hate to miss a year’s bloom!


 

 

 

 

 

 

Okra Hydrangeas

This natural oakleaf hydrangea stand sits on the edge of a ravine in the partial shade of old oaks.

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!

The sterile flowers look like paper cut-outs. The minuscule globular fertile flowers will mature into tiny seed capsules.

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 .

A developing flower bud is surrounded by delightfully textured "okra" like leaves.

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.


 

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