Hydrangea Leaves Tell The Type

Flowers of a florist or mophead type

Leaves of the florist or mophead type

Flowers of the panicled type

Foliage of the panicled type

Flowers of the smooth or arborescens type

Foliage of the smooth or arborescens type

Flowers of the oakleaf type


Foliage of the oakleaf type

The popular snowflake hydrangea is an oakleaf type.

Four hydrangea species are the most popular ones in our area. All these four hydrangea species grow well here, but the only way to tell the difference is to look at the foliage to know what you have or what you are purchasing if they are not in flower. The mophead or florist type is considered the most colorful of the species and are noted for their pink and blue flowers. Common selections include the lace caps which have lots of types, but Shooting Star is growing in popularity in our marketplace. Common types found in Birmingham garden centers include Endless Summer, Big Daddy, Dear Dolores, White Bigleaf, Nikko Blue, and Tilt-A-Swirl. While I have not grown all of these selections each have distinctive coloration. If you have soil on the alkaline side they will tend to give you pink or a pinkish tint, and if you have acid soil they will give you a more blue color. White Bigleaf is suppose to stay white, but I have not seen one old enough to know if the white stays pure in our soils after a number of years. Remember this hydrangea blooms on old wood, so you should prune immediately after flowering not in winter if you want flowers next year.
The panicled or paniculata type has for many years been a staple for late summer flowering and is commonly called Peegee. Now with new breeding they have become popular especially because of the introduction of Limelight. Also Little Lime, Invincible series, Pinky Winky, White, and Moon Dance are now in our marketplace. These are tough puppies and can have huge flower clusters which are mostly white or white with a tint of green or pink. Also, there are several dwarf selections. These are big plants and are often cut back after a hard freeze and allowed to generate new growth to increase flowering. These plants need a good fertilization program to maximize the flower size and color. Monthly applications of 15-15-15 through the flowering period at the rate of a 1/4 cup sprinkled around the plant, but not touching the stems, is needed and a 1/2 cup per plant on mature plants before flowering.
The smooth or arborescens types are simply a plant that is elegantly white and not found in many gardens, but the folks that have them in our area love them. Annabelle is the most popular, and the recently introduced Incredball series is gaining popularity. You can prune these in winter, as they also bloom on new growth. I have grown them for a long time, and mine survive only 3 or 4 years. One reason is that I might have over fertilized them.
Our native oakleaf type is found on the rocky cliffs around Birmingham, and I think our metro area is the center of their native habitat. Selections include Tara, Harmony, Semmes Beauty and the well know Snowflake which was introduced to the public by Eddie Aldridge. Mr. Aldridge planted many of these plants at his home which is now Aldridge Gardens; a showcase in our area for hydrangeas. As with the panicled and smooth group the oakleaf types bloom on new growth, so they can be pruned in winter or early spring before new growth begins. All these hydrangeas grow well in our area, but the leaves are the key to know how to prune them.

John Floyd

John Floyd has been gardening--and learning about Birmingham area gardening--for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was Editor-in-Chief of Southern Living.

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