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Find native shrubs to add great fall color

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Fall is here, and who doesn’t love trees and shrubs with beautiful autumn color? If you have been searching for a shrub that has four-season appeal, including outstanding fall color, oakleaf hydrangea could be that plant to answer your fall color landscape needs. 

Hydrangea quercifolia, commonly known as oakleaf, gets its name from the shape of its leaves, which are shaped similar to that of an oak tree. This hydrangea, unlike panicle and macrophylla, is native to the United States and does quite well in this region without much fuss. 

Another native hydrangea that you may be familiar with is arborescence, common name being smooth hydrangea. In my opinion, smooth hydrangea can’t hold a candle to the oakleaf for being a must-have in the garden. Smooth hydrangea does not tolerate dry soil as well, and does not have great fall color, and looks quite boring during the winter. Plus, you usually have to cut it back aggressively in the spring from die-back, as with the oakleaf, no pruning is required as long as you plant it in the correct location. Don’t get me wrong, smooth hydrangea is a fantastic bloomer, and has its place in the garden, but it’s just not a four-season shrub.

In early spring, leaves will start to emerge from the woody stems. They start out as a small, light -green leaf, quickly growing to a large oak leaf shape. In the shade it will produce larger, darker leaves, and will have more of an open airy look to the shrub. In full sun, it will have a bushier appearance, with more leaves, being lighter green in color and being smaller in scale compared to the larger size leaves in a shadier location.

In late spring / early summer, oakleaf hydrangea will produce large cone-shaped white flowers all around the bush. In the area of my garden that gets part shade, it blooms about 2-3 weeks behind compared to my oakleaf in full sun. I like this delayed blooming in the shade because it gives me more time to enjoy the flowers since I have them in both sun and shade. Right after my oakleaf flowers out in full sun, two weeks later here comes those blooms in the shade. It’s quite impressive, and really demands your attention when in bloom; it draws your eyes toward this bush wherever you have placed it in your landscape. This shrub can come in double or single blossoms, depending on the cultivar. The blossoms look more along the lines of a panicle hydrangea, not roundish like a macrophylla hydrangea. The flowers will start out white, then over time turn to a pinkish color, then fade to brown. These brown flower heads can remain on the shrub all the way through fall and into winter.

Around mid to late fall, this is really where this shrub puts on a show.It has stunning fall colors that range from a rusty-orange to dark reddish-maroon and green, all displayed simultaneously, then eventually turning all red toward the end of the fall color cycle. Again, in full sun, it runs about 2-3 weeks ahead of any that I have in shade. The fall color of this shrub works well together under a shade tree that has contrasting fall-colored yellow leaves, or you could also place a grouping of oakleaves in front of an evergreen hedge, to highlight the stunning color. 

Once winter sets in and most foliage is gone from your garden, you will need to a have plants in your landscape that add winter interest, giving you something to admire when most everything looks stark. The oakleaf can help fill that void you are craving. Along with the dried flower heads, the bark on this shrub peels back, kind of giving a similar look of a river birch tree. The peeling bark looks better once the shrub gets some age on it and the main stems get a decent size. It really looks amazing when it snows, highlighting the faded brown flower heads and the cinnamon color of the peeling bark. 

Some of the requirements of this shrub are full sun to part shade, though it will grow in full shade in some situations. It likes to have consistent moisture and the leaves will wilt if we are in a dry spell. In my experience, once established, it only requires watering in full sun when the blooms are just setting and the plant is using a lot of energy to create those blooms. After that, they will go weeks without rain or watering, and mine also have the extra heat coming off the brick from my home, which causes more moisture loss. In the shade, they need less watering compared to when in full sun. The leaves seem to droop much less in dry spells in shade, though be aware if you have them beneath big trees, as competition for water can be crucial. Being native, they are happy growing in my heavy clay soil and don’t seem to be bothered by it at all. Though I did amend the soil with compost when I planted these, as I do with most everything I plant. These plants will not tolerate having wet feet, so good drainage is important. As for size and spacing, pay attention to the cultivar you purchase. There are some that can get up to ten feet in height, and there are also new smaller varieties like oakleaf munchkin that only grows to be around 3 feet high. I prefer Sikes dwarf and Peewee, they seem to stay around 4 feet or so, which is good for me.

If you want to get a good look at some of these spectacular shrubs on display before you purchase one, take a visit to the Louisville Zoo. They have them placed throughout the park, and I recommend viewing them during the different seasons. They use the larger cultivars, and they look amazing during their Halloween trick-or-treat season. Some may still have the beautiful fall foliage, while others are highlighted from the landscape lights shinning up into the remarkable branch structure. I admire these every time we visit the zoo, and all the other endless varieties of trees, shrubs and perennials they have tirelessly worked to create in their exceptional landscape. It’s a good place to take ideas and implement into your yard.

Fall is upon us, and now is the best time for planting trees and shrubs. If you’re looking to add more autumn color to your garden, you might try an oakleaf hydrangea. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, and it just might become one of your favorites, like it is for me.

Kristopher Fante is a columnist.