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TREES & Plants

Big-leaved hydrangea

Big-leaved hydrangeas are beloved for their showy flowers. However, these small shrubs from Japan are generally not hardy as far north as Chicago. Cold winters in Zone 5 and colder usually kill their flower buds,  which are set on the previous year's growth in most selections. In recent years, some cultivated varieties have been developed that are somewhat hardier, although they will do better in areas where they have the insulating protecting of reliable snow cover. Blue flowers are one of the plant's appeals, but big-leaved hydrangeas only have blue flowers when planted in acid soils. In alkaline soils, such as those in most of the Chicago region and the Great Plains, the flowers will be pink.

Flower clusters will vary by cultivar.  Some cultivars have large clusters of mostly showy (sterile) flowers, with a few non-showy (fertile) flowers in the interior of the cluster.  These are often referred to as mopheads.  Other cultivars have lacecap-type clusters.  These usually feature a center of non-showy (fertile) flowers surrounded by an outer ring of the showy (sterile) flowers.

The species and older cultivars bloom on old wood.  In zone 5, the plant often dies to the ground and there is no old wood and thus, no flowers.  Many newer cultivars will bloom on old or new wood.  If the old wood dies, the plant can still bloom on new wood.

Botanical name: 
Hydrangea macrophylla
All Common Names: 
big-leaved hydrangea, big leaf hydrangea, bigleaf hydrangea, French hydrangea, Japanese hydrangea, lacecap hydrangea, mophead hydrangea, penny mac, hortensia
Family (English): 
Hydrangea
Family (Botanic): 
Hydrangeaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Shrub
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (foliage falls off)
Native Locale: 
  • Non-native
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Fast
Light Exposure: 
  • Partial sun (4-6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial shade (4-6 hrs indirect light daily)
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Blue
  • Pink
Size Range: 
  • Small shrub (3-5 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Rounded
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Massing
  • Foundation
  • Mixed border
  • Container
Time of Year: 
  • Early summer
  • Mid summer
  • Late summer
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
  • Late fall
More Information: 

Size and Form

3 to 5 feet high and 3 to 5 feet wide; rounded form.

Tree & Plant Care

Grows best in moist, well drained, moderately fertile soil.
Drought sensitive. Water in dry periods.
Marginally hardy in Zone 5; protect from winter winds and extreme cold temperatures.  Select new cultivars that bloom on both old and new wood to ensure flowering in zone 5.

Disease, pests and problems

No serious pests.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to Japan.

Bark color and texture 

Stems are green to light gray or light brown.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, opposite leaves with toothed margins;  4 to 8 inches long.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Large flower clusters that may vary by cultivar.  Some cultivars have large clusters of mostly showy (sterile) flowers, with a few non-showy (fertile) flowers in the interior of the cluster.  These are often referred to as mopheads.  Other cultivars have lacecap-type clusters.  These usually feature a center of non-showy (fertile) flowers surrounded by an outer ring of the showy (sterile) flowers.  Flowers will be pink when the plant is grown in alkaline soil.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

The actual fruit (a dry capsule) is not ornamentally important, but the remains of the dry flower heads that surround them do provide winter interest.
 

Cultivars and their differences 

All Summer Beauty (Hydrangea macrophylla 'All Summer Beauty'): Mophead-type flower cluster. Nearly rounded flower heads are up to 8 inches across; blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline soil. Flowers on both old and new wood. 

Blushing Bride (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Blushing Bride'):  Mophead-type flower cluster.  White (semi-double) flowers, blush pink with age.  Blooms on new and old wood. Part of the Endless Summer® Collection.

Endless Summer® (Hydrangea macrophyll 'Bailmer'):  Mophead-type flower cluster.  Pink flowers (blue in acid soils).   3 to 4 feet tall.  Blooms on new and old wood.  Inconsistent bloomer. 

Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla)Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) Endless Summer®photo: John Hagstrom

Light-O-Day® (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Bailday'):  Lacecap-type flower cluster. White showy sterile flowers on the outer ring surrounding small pink fertile flowers.    Blooms on new and old wood.  Variegated foliage. 

Nikko Blue (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Nikko Blue'): Mophead-type flower cluster.  Large rounded flower clusters; blue in acid soil, pink in alkaline soil. Blooms on last year's woody stems, leaving flower buds vulnerable to winter damage. Seldom blooms in zone 5.  Dark green leaves in summer.

Pia (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Pia');  Mophead-type flower cluster.  Dwarf cultivar growing only 2 feet tall.  Pink flowers.  Blooms on old wood only, but considered hardy to zone 5.

Twist-n-Shout™  (Hydrangea macrophylla 'PIIHM-I'): Laceccap-type flower cluster.  Blooms on both old and new wood. Sturdy red stems support abundant  flowers  in which deep pink is surrounded by pink or periwinkle blue, depending on soil type. Glossy deep green leaves turn burgundy in fall.  Part of the Endless Summer® Collection.

Variegata (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Variegata'):  Lacecap-type flower cluster.  Rosy pink flowers up to 4 inches wide; variegated leaves with light and dark green areas and creamy or silvery-white margins.  Flowers on old wood only.