Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: A Fine Native Hydrangea

It's hard for me to believe that I've never written about Hydrangea arborescens, it's my favorite hydrangea and the first shrub I planted in this garden 30 years ago. I first saw wild hydrangea while hiking a ridge not too far from my house and thought it was charming and just what was needed in my garden. It was clinging to the side of a slope and towering above it were hardwood trees like the ones at Clay and Limestone.
the sterile flowers stay attached after flowering has finished
Hydrangea arborescens, commonly known as smooth hydrangea or wild hydrangea is a gangly limbed deciduous shrub with large, opposite, toothed leaves and grayish stems. It is native to woodland slopes, hillsides and streambanks in the Eastern US from New York to Florida, west to Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana and as I shared earlier in middle Tennessee woodlands. Some maps show it growing as far west as New Mexico and Arizona, but, I can't corroborate that information. In warmer climates it's happiest in dappled shade with moist soil, but, it is tolerant of damp soil, dry soil and even rocky soil. The fact that it grows so well on slopes indicates to this gardener that drainage is important! So keep that in mind when you plant it. Adequate moisture is an ongoing issue in a middle Tennessee garden all summer long, be prepared to give this plant a big gulp of water every now and then, it can tolerate some dry spells, but don't expect it to flourish if it's dry all the time.
planted with Hypericum

Hydrangea arborescens is planted in three different beds. My favorite is the one planted with witch hazels, Hamamelis vernalis and a non native H x intermedia 'Diane'. Also in that section of the bed is a Fothergilla, Oakleaf hydreangea 'Ruby Slippers' and a cultivar H arborescens 'White Dome' they're underplanted with Seersucker sedges, camassias, ex-asters, Trilliums and Green and Gold.
Flat-topped clusters of white flowers (corymbs to 2-6”across) are produced in early summer.
What do I like about this hydrangea and why would I recommend it for your garden?

For lots of little reasons and for two big ones.
Dehiscent seed capsules ripen in October-November
First, I am wild about its "lacecap flowers". They're not as lacy as non native Hydrangea, but there's enough sterile flowers to make me smile. The flat topped clusters of creamy-white fertile and sterile flowers start out pale green and turn to a creamy white and eventually fading to brown in late summer.

The white flowers appear on tips of new growth, so you don't have to worry about winter's harsh blast killing the flower buds. Feel free to cut it back to control growth and encourage stronger stems in early spring.

It took me years to learn to appreciate winter browns, now that I do, I never want to cut back my garden until the very last minute in spring! Just look at what I would miss if I cut the stems of this Hydrangea to nubs in late fall!
nectar and pollen attract pollinators
The second reason I recommend wild hydrangea is for its wildlife value. Planting native plants that have high wildlife value is one of the guiding principles of this garden. Lots of plants are critter friendly, but some are absolutely better than others and those are the ones I plant.

Wild hydrangea has great wildlife value. It's a pollen and nectar source for pollinators and a host plant for two moths, Darapsa versicolor/Hydrangea Sphinx Moth and Olethreutes ferriferana/Hydrangea leaf-tier moth. I keep watching for them, but so far have missed their offspring and the moths.
bees across the flower making it hard to get them and the flower into focus
If you've ever watched a bee race over/work this flower you would guess it has a lot to offer. I love that little carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), Halictid bees, masked bees (Hylaeus spp.), miscellaneous wasps, mosquitoes, Syrphid flies, thick-headed flies, Muscid flies, dance flies (Empis spp.), tumbling flower beetles, and long-horned beetles (source) also visit the flowers.
Hydrangea arborescens 'White Dome'
Some gardeners think Smooth Hydrangea cultivars are more attractive than the species, they usually like the larger flower heads over the straight species, but, a big flowered cultivar like 'Annabelle' does nothing for me, nor does it look right in my woodland garden. But, if that's one you like go ahead a add it to your garden. If you can't find the straight species, you won't be disappointed with Hydrangea arborescens 'White Dome'. The flower head is also a "lacecap" shape with sterile and fertile flowers and it's equally attractive to pollinators.
 The yellow color of the wild hydrangeas are a perfect complement to the other fall tones
I think of Wild Hydrangea as offering year round appeal, except for very late in winter when I've cut the stems back. But, before long it's greening up and setting buds. The large serrated leaves and tall stems stand up straight and tall in my garden with flowers on every tip. As i shared earlier, they start out green, then they're turn a creamy white and once they're pollinated they fade to a sweet parchment color that lasts all winter.

Wild hydrangea has a nice yellow in the fall, that helps light up a dark corner in a woodland garden and acts as a supporting player to the more dramatic fall gold, reds and oranges. It looks charming with blues, even if it's only a container.
What do you think about its yellow leaves when planted with lilac ex-asters and the red leaves of a Japanese maple and Florida dogwood?

I love it.

Do give this native shrub a chance, it's really quite special.

It's a lovely, easy care,  year round pretty shrub.
It tolerates winter's cold blast.
It's a pollinator magnet and host plant.
It makes sense for a woodland garden.

The particulars

Common Name: smooth hydrangea, Wild hydrangea
Type: Deciduous shrub
Family: Hydrangeaceae
Native Range: Eastern United States from New York, into the mid-western states, south to Texas and Florida
Zone: 3 to 9
Height: 3.00 to 5.00 feet, occasionally to ten feet
Spread: 3.00 to 5.00 feet
Bloom Time: May/June to September
Flower: Flat-topped clusters (4 to 6 inches across) of small white flowers, larger sterile flowers may be present along edges of cluster, appearing in early summer. Flowers on new growth.
Fruit: Dry, light brown capsules appearing in early fall
Sun: Part shade, dappled sunlight, full sun with moist soil 
Water: Medium
Soil: clay soil, wet, dry, shallow and/or rocky soil. Acid to neutral ph.
Maintenance: Low, prune in late spring to control growth, can colonize
Suggested Use: Naturalize, Rain Garden, woodland garden, edge of woods, massing, stabilizing a hillside or slope.
Comments: Showy cultivars that I like 'Ryan Gainey' and 'White Dome', check to make sure you get a cultivar that is not just showy sterile flowers. There are two pink cultivars, but, I am not sure if they are just sterile flower heads. Its roots have been used for hundreds of years in folk and Native American medicine for the treatment of various ailments

Thank you for stopping by and welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. WW is about sharing and celebrating wildflowers from all over this great big, beautiful world. Join us on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not; and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers. Please leave a comment when you add your url to Mr Linky.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. A great posting...full of information too. I never had much luck with Hydrangeas in our French garden...hoping the slightly damper climate in the UK might work better!

  2. This is a beauty. Here at the park where we do a lot of walking it grows on hillsides in a lot of shade. I have always wanted it in my garden but don't know where to purchase it. I have never seen it for sale anywhere.

    1. Lisa, http://www.easywildflowers.com/quality/hyd.arbor.htm

  3. I have 'Annabelle' in my garden. She owns one corner. I like that I can whack her back to six inches and in a few months, she is five feet tall again. I do that every couple of years.

  4. Hi Gail! I enjoyed your post. Your place is so beautiful, and that shrub fits right in.

  5. Hello, I am Jeannie who just posted the book report on seed catalogs, sunlight in my garden and rocks in Tennessee. Since they are garden related and not wildflower related, I was not sure if they would be welcome. I do have two hydrangeas in my yard but they are not photo worthy!
    I love the pictures on your post; they make me yearn for Spring.

    1. Welcome to Clay and Limestone. Thanks for stopping by. I did enjoy both those posts, your rock post is almost a WW post, it just needs a link to Wildflower Wednesday.

    2. I always enjoy stopping by. It is encouraging to read about kindred souls who are fighting the same problems I face (clay and limestone). I don't feel so alone...no one has ever wanted to link up with me before...I feel so honored. Now which buttons do I push????

  6. Unfortunately, this one isn't native to my region in Canada, but it's a beauty! Great post.

  7. Wow, this is so pretty! I love how it turns in the autumn and makes a pretty vignette with your maple and dogwood.

  8. 'Annabelle' is my gal. I do have to top her up with a drink when extreme weather makes her flag, but she has been surprisingly resilient in my dry-shade garden for many, many years. When I tell people she is a cultivar of a North American native shrub, they're often surprised – though I always point out: not native to our region. Still, those zones keep shifting, and wildlife along with them. Happy Wildflower Day, Gail.

    1. Helen, Annabelle is a good choice and she's attractive to pollinators! Happy WW!

  9. Tried H. arborescens on a steep clay slope, but it didn't do so well for me. I think maybe it didn't have enough shade... I'm sure it's a nice plant in the proper setting!

  10. That is how I feel about my Chrsanthemoides monilifera. Seen growing by the sea up the coast, and on the dunes near us, gifted by birds grateful for the berries - and I have volunteers happily growing in my garden. We are all happy.

    My wildflower is an African blue water lily.

  11. Just made my first public post on my very young garden. In the fall I planted an Oakleaf hydrangea. Thank you Gail for promoting natives.

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. I wonder how Hydrangea arborescens would do on sandy soil? I love the lacecaps and hadn't realized what an insect attractant this plant was. Hmmmm....

    1. As long as it doesn't dry out it should be fine. Happy gardening.

  14. I love those flowers. Unfortunately, I don't have any room left in my new small garden for another hydrangea, but I do have a viburnam trilobun and has somewhat similar flowers, and it is those flowers that are half the reason I grow it. Berries for the birds are the other half.

  15. Are you sure that bee isn't leapfrogging over your hydrangea? Sure looks that way!

  16. Wow, that last photo is stunning! I had no idea there was a wild hydrangea.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson