Despite decades of pampering Hydrangea macrophylla “Nikko” and any number of its fellow cultivars in various climates, my visions of a bush full of blue or pink snowballs of blooms are just that—visions. Just this afternoon, I drove by an abandoned house on a country road and there beside a dilapidated fence was a garden hydrangea in full blue wondrous bloom. For some reason, I don’t have that kind of luck with hydrangeas. That is, until now. In my Pennsylvania garden, the oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), native to southeastern United States, is a top-performer its branches heavy with creamy white blossoms.
Compare the two photos below: On the left is an 18-inch tall Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar, and on the right is a 5-foot tall oakleaf hydrangea. Both plants are the same age!
Besides the oakleaf hydrangea’s substantially faster growth, and the fact that it blooms reliably producing , it also provides lovely fall color. Its native heritage makes it a useful mid-summer source of pollen and nectar for pollinators, as Darke and Tallamy note in their book The Living Landscape. They also point out the oakleaf hydrangea's utility as a site for nests and wildlife cover.
Once an oakleaf hydrangea gets established, it is likely to produce root suckers. These can easily be dug and transplanted providing an affordable way to increase your property’s native habitat. This morning I noticed some promising root suckers on the plant in the photo above. Since they tolerate partial sun, I’m envisioning incorporating them in an understory island bed. Nikko better hurry up and bloom some year soon, or an oakleaf hydrangea may be called upon to fill its spot!