3. Oak Leaf Hydrangea

Sweet(?) Little ‘Alice’ in her White Gown

We’ve had a love-hate relationship with ‘Alice’ for a long time. Alice is the name of our oakleaf hydrangea and she lives in our zone 8 coastal plain garden. We love her, but sometimes, we think she hates us.

Here you can see tiny fertile flowers and showy white sepals that create outstanding bloom

It’s not that she doesn’t put on a fine show in late spring. Of course she would, she’s so vain she wants people to ooh and ahh over her flouncy, cone-shaped clusters of white flowers. But in high summer, hot and dry, she turns positively slatternly with browned-off blooms and sulky leaves.

This is frustrating because we have seen Alice, or her relatives, in other zone 8 gardens and in gardens as far north as zone 5 looking exceptionally stylish in late summer, as their flamboyant

A dewy ‘Snow Queen’ oak leaf hydrangea in July, one of many in an allee at Tower Hill Botanical Garden, Boylston, MA

creamy blooms dissolve into a modest blush. Later, as weather turns cool in these gardens, come-hither rainbows of burgundy, burnt orange and purple on bold “oak” leaves can wow a viewer.

The lighting in this picture flatters a dried brown bloom, result of high temps and little rain in late spring

Frankly, we think she’s a bit needy. She loves hot summers. But not dry feet. Not wet feet, either. Can be persnickety in pots. Likes rich soil. Refuses to hurry her growth. Wants no close companions – wants to savor her middle-aged spread, stepping out with her stolons as she ages.

Prefers organic fertilizer. Wants some shade in summer. Must have mulch to keep her ankles cool. Won’t tolerate pests or diseases. (Probably the reverse: bugs won’t tolerate her.) Needs a gardener-in-waiting to remove tousled blooms, fall or winter, and prune out old stems to keep her looking young and shapely.

After all this, she doesn’t care a fig about how she looks all winter long, standing naked, shaggy bark exposed, gnarled crooked stems beckoning.

And still we love her. How can we not when we see those magnificent blooms in

‘Alice,’ native to the southeast, seems to brighten the edge of the woods

late spring. (The deer are probably more ardent suitors, though. They nuzzle and nibble most endearingly)

We tried to be nice to our first Alice. We put her in a moist spot we thought she would like. She died. After the funeral we figured it out, poor thing. Bad drainage. It was wet feet that killed her. Probably the root rot.

She did bequeath to us some of her offspring, propagated from cuttings. We’d learned our lesson, so we put the best one in a dry spot, uplands, at the head of a path, where we could admire her blooms from afar.

‘Snow Queen,’ whose blossom is chunkier than ‘Alice’s, prefers a cool climate

The soil was sorely lacking in humus. She was peeved. We tried to make up for this by adding compost and mulching with shredded leaves regularly. When she sulked, we gave her water. She condescended to bloom for us, but rarely gave us any of those rosy blooms or rainbow leaves we’d seen elsewhere. Friends of ours grow a lovely Alice in a garden that was formerly a dog pen. Hmm…mm. Alas, when we gave her well-composted manure she rewarded us with large leaves that quickly became dish-rags in drought.

In our yard, Alice probably misses the shady stream banks where her ancestors lived. There, they had constant moisture, good drainage and deep forest soil. That’s where botanist William Bartram often found them on his expeditions to collect plants in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas during the Revolution.

A psychedelic display by an oak leaf hydrangea on a fall New England day. Photo by Susan

Over the years her ancestors were shipped to England to please gardeners there. There they languished. Too damp for their tastes. Probably the root rot did them in, too.

Now, here’s a puzzle. We planted one of Alice’s sisters not eight feet from a red maple growing in dryish soil. We said, this is not a good idea. Red maple roots are greedy for water. Alice is finicky about her soil moisture, not too much, but not too little, either. A perfect storm?

But she was such a nice plant, and she looked so like a debutante against that picket fence, we just had to do it. We’ll be sure and water you, we promised.

We did water her – when we thought about it. She didn’t seem to care. She rather

Large leaves of our coddled ‘Alice.’ Our “neglected” ‘Alice’ has smaller leaves, is less needy

liked the spot. She and that red maple got along famously. After a while we figured out that they probably owed their compatibility to our laziness.

We hate raking leaves and carting them around each spring. One day we got the idea of tossing a huge pile of them directly onto the maple-hydrangea bed, as big a pile as we dared.

It seemed extravagant, but by summer the leaves had settled in. Better still, deep underneath they seemed to trap what little moisture was around and keep the ground cool. Whether or not Alice appreciated these offerings, we don’t know, but

Neither rain nor freeze can stay the color in these New Hampshire hydrangea leaves. Photo by Susan

she has slowly prospered, even to the point of occasional rainbow leaves.

Eventually Alice will probably top out at around seven or eight feet. She does have a raft of relations of varying sizes that seem to do well in southern gardens: ‘Alison,’ ‘Snow Flake’ (a stunning double that could outshine her sister), ‘Sikes Dwarf,’ ‘Pee Wee’ and ‘Little Honey.’ (The last two, more diminutive, must be kid brother and kid sister.)

For now, we are staying loyal to our Alices, but some day we’d like to meet the entire family.

You might also enjoy these entries on hydrangeas:

Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’

Hydrangea paniculata

Oak Leaf Hydrangea

The Hydrangea that Climbs

The Case of the Missing Blooms I

The Case of the Missing Blooms II

The Case of the Missing Blooms III

Stalking the Big Blue Blossom

Drying Hydrangeas

The Romantic Hydrangeas

The Grand Hydrangeas of Ireland

Letter to Lovers of the Blue

One Response to 3. Oak Leaf Hydrangea

  1. good article; i will share with as many friends as i can. thank you for posting.

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