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How to Choose the Best Hydrangea

how to choose hydrangeas

A love affair exists between gardeners and hydrangeas. Even non-gardeners are moved by the outstanding beauty of this flowering shrub, and it's no wonder that it's become one of the most popular for American and European gardens.

Which is the Best Hydrangea for You?

Hydrangeas are moisture lovers, and prefer shelter from afternoon sun in rich, acid soils; but gardeners with sunny gardens don't have to miss out on the beauty and versatility of this shrub – there are many hydrangeas which thrive in full sun spots.

It's important to look at cold hardiness when researching which hydrangea is right for you. Some are hardy as far north as Zone 3, but while the plant might live, flowering is not reliable if a species blooms on old wood. This is one of the reasons that panicle and smooth hydrangeas have gained such popularity in recent years.

'Old wood' is the term used to describe stems or branches that are at least one year old. 'New wood' refers to stems grown during the current growing season. Some hydrangeas bloom on old wood only, which means that a winter severe enough to kill off old stems and branches will drastically reduce the following summer's bloom.

Modern breeding has produced hydrangeas in almost every color, size and shape, and the gardener is to be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choices.

Learn how to change the colors of your Hydrangea blooms.

Let's look at the six most-popular types of cultivated hydrangeas first, and then visit some of the more common uses in the landscape to help you find a hydrangea that fits your needs. We'll start with the old wood bloomers and end with the new.

6 Most-Popular Types of Hydrangea

Mophead Hydrangea (Zones 6-9)

Mophead hydrangea is perhaps the most well-known of the genus and is split into two categories: Lacecap – with wide flat clusters of fertile flowers surrounded by showy sterile ones, and Hortensias (also known as florists' or French hydrangea) – with tight, round clusters of sterile flowers that are so beloved by florists and brides. With the exception of some new cultivars which bloom on both old and new wood, they generally bloom on 'lateral buds' from old wood and are the least cold hardy of the genus. (Hydrangea macrophylla)

Lateral Buds are the buds along the sides of a branch that will eventually form shoots, flowers or leaves in the new season.

Mountain Hydrangea (Zones 6-9)

The lacecap bloom clusters of Mountain hydrangea are made up of tiny fertile flowers surrounded by showier sterile ones – just like the lacecap mopheads above. However, mountain hydrangeas are somewhat hardier as a group and their bloom season can last a little longer. For some time, these lovely shrubs were considered a subspecies of the mophead group, but now have their own species designation. (Hydrangea serrata)

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Zones 5-9)

Dripping with long clusters of reddening-white blooms, oakleaf hydrangea is a showstopper in early summer. It is native to the Eastern and Southeastern United States and a terrific choice for those who wish to add shrubs to a native garden.

Additionally, the oak-shaped foliage can hardly be rivaled in the fall garden for its intense red-orange color and staying power. In winter, cinnamon-colored bark peals to reveal tawny stems. This is also an old wood bloomer, but is hardier than mophead or mountain species. (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Climbing Hydrangea (Zones 4-9)

Climbing hydrangea, also called Climbing Hydrangea Vine is a wonderful choice for east or north walls and is often used to clothe the trunks of large trees – as it does not smother them the way English Ivy does. It can take up to four years to get settled in its new home, but after that – watch out!

The vigorous vertical and horizontal branches climb using aerial roots which attach to your structure without any help from you (but can be difficult to remove if you change your mind).

A mature plant can top out at 50ft tall and wide, and in mid-summer, it will cover itself with flat-topped clusters of fertile and sterile blooms borne on old wood. In the fall, the foliage turns a bright yellow and drops to reveal peeling red bark for the winter season. (Hydrangea anomala subsp petiolaris)

Aerial roots are tiny roots that develop from growing stems. When a stem touches another structure, they slowly attach themselves to that structure with tiny, sucker-like pads.

Panicle hydrangea (Zones 4-8)

If you've got a sunny garden, panicle hydrangeas are for you! Sizes range from compact to large, and the blooms are often more triangular and made up of both sterile and fertile flowers.Panicle hydrangeas bloom on new wood and therefore your summer show won’t take a hit if your winter is somewhat below average. (Hydrangea paniculata)

Hydrangea bloom clusters are made up of various arrangements of sterile and fertile flowers. Fertile flowers are quite small and are most often surrounded by the showier, petal-like sepals of the sterile flowers.

Smooth Hydrangea (aka Snowball Hydrangea) (Zones 3-9)

This is the ultimate floppy mop-head hydrangea with a large habit that can be kept in check by a hard pruning each year. As they're new wood bloomers, this won't affect that spring bloom – nor will a hard winter up to Zone 3 for some cultivars. They are native to woods of the Eastern United States, but a good amount of sunlight in a garden setting will strengthen bloom and stem development.

This is an important consideration as some cultivars in this group can get top-heavy and the weight of their blooms will pull stems to the ground. Newer cultivars have addressed this issue and offer lighter heads of bloom. A pruning to within 6-12" of the ground is still extremely helpful in early spring, and sometimes, removing spent flower heads immediately will promote a second bloom in late summer. (Hydrangea arborescens)

What's the Best Hydrangea for your Circumstances?

Ask yourself a few questions when determining which hydrangea will work for you.

  • Are you planting a pollinator garden?
  • Do you want them for patio containers?
  • Are you trying to establish a bit of privacy?

Here are some of the most common situations for gardeners and some recommended varieties to help you get the most out of this gorgeous, versatile shrub. 

Best Hydrangea for Full Sun

Panicle hydrangeas soak up the sun and turn it into beautiful, clusters of white/green blossom that attract pollinators and slowly dry into varying shades of pink and reds. 'Limelight' is a well-known cultivar that will give large impact to a garden and grace indoor vases throughout winter. Some will blush red soon after unfurling, such as the triangular-blossomed 'Pinky Winky'.

Like most hydrangea, panicles prefer moist soil, and if the site is 100% exposed, this is crucial. Otherwise, a bit of afternoon shade can help sustain them in dryer soils and warmer zones. If you're gardening in a cooler zone, you may find that smooth, mophead and oakleaf types will do just fine in a full-sun situation.

Best Hydrangea for Shade or Dappled Shade

The best environment you can give to mophead, mountain, oakleaf, smooth and climbing hydrangeas is a moist site with morning sun and afternoon shade. Deep shade is troublesome as some sun (3-4 hours) is necessary for good blooming, so consider 'limbing up' or removing one or two large limbs from large trees to create a dappled canopy.

Climbing hydrangea or Rose Sensation false climbing hydrangea (with a hydrangea-like display) will take a north or east wall and clothe it with deep green foliage, white lacy bloom and yellow fall color, and will still turn heads in winter with peeling cinnamon colored bark.

Limbing up is the process of removing lower branches from large trees or shrubs to create space and light, or to showcase the main growing stems of the tree or shrub.

Best Hydrangea for Privacy

Hydrangea can create a beautiful screen in your garden, and if you use a hardier cultivar that blooms on new wood (smooth and panicle types) you’ll be ensured of a serene, blossom-laden retreat no matter what the winter held the season before. Look to the larger cultivars such as 'Limelight' or 'Pinky Winky', and consider planting another smaller cultivar in front of the hedge to conceal its legs as the shrubs get bigger.

If you're only planting to designate areas of your garden with hedging, choose a new mophead cultivar that blooms on both new and old wood, such as cultivars from the Everlasting series. Make sure to prune gently, removing old flower heads and dead branches only.

Best Hydrangea for Pollinator Gardens

When it comes to hydrangeas, big bodacious bloom doesn't always mean a huge pollinator turnout. That's because hydrangea bloom clusters are made up of various mixes of sterile and fertile flowers – and the sterile flowers are the showiest. Therefore, if you're planting for pollinators, choose cultivars with lacecap blossom heads (like 'Tuff Stuff Red') before you choose the round, showy heads of classic Hortensia mopheads. Or choose oakleaf, panicle and climbing varieties which contain a great mix of nectar and pollen producing flowers.

Lacecap is a type of blossom and is a subset of the macrophyllas species which contains both mophead and lacecap hydrangea. Typically, the Mountain and climbing hydrangea tend to have lacecap blooms.

Best Hydrangea for Small Gardens

When you have a smaller garden, it's important to consider four-season interest as well as size. Dwarf oakleaf cultivars such as 'Pee Wee' can blend both needs beautifully. Usually topping out at 3-4' they are smaller than most oakleafs, and deliver the same outstanding color, foliage and stem interest of the larger species. Panicle hydrangea dwarfs such as 'Little Quick Fire' will hold their drying blossoms well into the winter. However, if it's all about summer time for you (hey, we get it!), consider smaller mopheads like 'Let's Dance Rave' or super-compact smooth cultivars such as 'Invincibelle Wee White'.

Best Hydrangea for Cutting Gardens & Dried Arrangements

One of the most-desirable features of mophead and panicle hydrangeas is the fact that they not only provide fresh, beautiful blooms for the garden and vase, but can also fill vases with exquisite dried flowers for indoor arrangements in the fall and winter. When choosing, think about size and shape. Do you want the enormous blooms of 'Limelight'? Colorful, classic mopheads like 'Nikko Blue'? Whichever you choose, let the bloom 'cure' on the plant for a few days after full bloom to make sure it lasts well in the vase. If you cut too early, you’ll be disappointed by wilting flowers.

Learn how to make a dried Hydrangea wreath. 

Best Hydrangea for Containers

Containers are a wonderful way to grow dwarf cultivars of many types of hydrangea, and there are compact cultivars available in all of the main groups, with the exception of climbers. Not only can you control sun exposure, soil moisture levels and soil fertility, but also pH, which can affect the bloom color of many mophead and mountain hydrangeas.

Container hydrangeas should be considered a zone less hardy in the pot than in the ground, so if you’re willing to try something a bit bigger for your containers, how about choosing newer cultivars that bloom on both new and old wood, such as those in the Everlasting series? Whichever hydrangea you choose, make sure to also choose large glazed ceramic or plastic containers to facilitate constant moisture levels.

Everything you need to know about how to grow plants in containers. 

Best Hydrangea for Four-Season Interest

It's a great feeling to plant a hydrangea for the growing season and find yourself admiring it well into winter. Oakleaf and climbing hydrangeas certainly top this list, as the rich red foliage of oakleafs (such as 'Ruby Slippers') complements the bright yellow of climber foliage, and both have thick cinnamon colored bark that peels to reveal tawny stems. For even more pop, the climber 'Miranda' will clothe a wall with variegated foliage during the summer season.

Best Cold Hardy Hydrangea

Hydrangeas that bloom on new wood (smooth & panicle) are the best bet for gardeners that want to see reliable bloom as far north as Zone 3. In this situation, even a worse-than-average winter will still result in summer blooms. Smooth hydrangeas, such as the new cultivar , combine the best of cold and heat hardiness and in cooler zones can be grown in full sun without any issues.

Best Hydrangea for Hot, Humid Environments

Hydrangeas are very sensitive to heat and intense sunlight, but what could be more 'Southern' than an old fashioned hedge of 'Annabelle' hydrangea or a vase full of brightly-colored mopheads next to a big pitcher of lemonade? Successful hydrangea growers south of Zone 7 must consider two things above all - moisture and morning sun.

Give your hydrangeas (even the panicles) a little rest from that scorching heat in the summertime by siting them with shelter from some of the afternoon sun; and make sure that the soil is consistently moist, allowing them to continuously recharge leaves that naturally release moisture into the air. However, if your hydrangea is wilting during the day but perking up during the evening, moisture isn't the problem – sun exposure is.

hydrangea in the snow
Be sure to not cut the bloom too soon or they may wilt quickly in a vase. Let the bloom "cure" for a few days after full bloom to ensure long lasting bouquets.
dwarf hydrangea
Dwarf hydrangea are ideal for containers, and allow you to have more control over the growing conditions. (Customer Photo by Lynda M.)