The beautiful oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia, Zones 5-9) is native to shady stream banks in eastern North America. Most varieties grow 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, with white flowers, and leaves that are indeed shaped like those of an oak, only larger. The leaves begin the year with a rusty look and continue to have a roughness to them throughout the summer. In fall, the foliage turns varying shades of burgundy.
One of this shrub's finer points is that it suckers (sends up vigorous shoots from its roots) slightly, which makes it easy to divide if you want more plants. You can choose from several varieties, including the astoundingly large 'Alice', which grows to 12 feet tall and wide with 12-inch panicles—highly branched flower structures—to match. On the other end of the spectrum is 'Pee Wee,' which tops out at about 3 feet.
In moist, temperate climates, such as the Pacific Northwest, the oakleaf hydrangea grows beautifully as a dry shade plant, but in hotter climates or if sited in more sun, it needs consistent moisture. It is a robust grower in morning sun, reports Ed Gilman, Ph.D., professor of horticulture at the University of Florida, who has an 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide specimen in his own garden. In very cold climates, protect the stems of oakleaf hydrangeas from freezing in the same manner you would bigleaf types.
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