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TREES & Plants

Wild hydrangea

Wild hydrangea is a hardy, adaptable shrub grown for its large, cloud-like clusters of early summer flowers that start out pale green and turn to white. It is native to woodlands in the eastern U.S. Since it flowers on branches that start growing in spring, its flower show is not diminished by harsh winters. For garden purposes, cultivated varieties are more attractive. If left on the plant, the flowers of wild hydrangea dry to an attractive tan color that is interesting all winter, especially when touched with snow, or can be taken indoors for arrangements.

Botanical name: 
Hydrangea arborescens
All Common Names: 
Wild hydrangea, Smooth hydrangea, Sevenbark, Tree hydrangea
Family (English): 
Hydrangea
Family (Botanic): 
Hydrangeaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Shrub
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (foliage falls off)
Native Locale: 
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Fast
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun (4-6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial shade (4-6 hrs indirect light daily)
Tolerances: 
  • Alkaline soil
  • Road salt
Soil Preference: 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • White
Size Range: 
  • Medium shrub (5-8 feet)
  • Small shrub (3-5 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Mounded
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Massing
  • Hedge
  • Foundation
  • Mixed border
Time of Year: 
  • Early summer
  • Mid summer
  • Late summer
  • Early fall
More Information: 

Size and Form

3 to 5 feet high and wide; mounded form.

Tree & Plant Care

Thrives in rich, moist, well-drained soil.
pH adaptable (can handle soils from acid to alkaline).
Relatively shade-tolerant.  Best in part shade; give additional water if  grown in full sun.
Drought-sensitive; may need to be watered in hot summer weather or leaves will droop.
Prune in late winter.  This species can be cut back completely as flowering occurs only on new wood.

Disease, pests and problems

No serious problems.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 10 (native to only one county near the Chicago area)
Native to southern Illinois, east into Virginia and south into Alabama and Georgia.

Bark color and texture 

Smooth, shiny gray-brown.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, opposite leaves; 2 to 8 inches long; oval, dark green with serrated edges; fall color yellow or brown.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Large clusters of early summer flowers that start out pale green and turn to white.

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

Annabelle (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle'): One of the most popular hydrangea cultivars because of its extremely large rounded inflorescences. Individual creamy-white flower heads can be 12 inches in diameter and bloom in mid-June against dark, serrated foliage.  It was selected from a plant found growing in the wild near the town of Anna in southern Illinois.

Bella Anna(Hydrangea arborescens 'PIIHA-I'):  Similar to 'Annabelle' but with pink flowers; strong stems to support the large flower clusters.

Hayes Starburst  (Hydrangea arborescens 'Hayes Starburst'):  Clusters of white, double flowers producing a starburst effect.

Hills-of-Snow hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens 'Grandiflora'): Commonly used cultivar is admired for its large, clean, white flower clusters. The 6 to 8-inch flower heads are not as large or symmetrical as the cultivar 'Annabelle' hydrangea, but they contrast well against the dark, serrated foliage.

Incrediball® (Hydrangea arborescens 'Abetwo'): An improved, large version of 'Annabelle.'  Large, 12-inch, creamy white, ball-shaped flower heads are held upright on thick stems.

Invincibelle® Spirit (Hydrangea arborescens 'NCHA1'): Dark pink buds open to 6 to 8 inch wide rosy pink flower clusters, changing to soft pink as they mature; dark green leaves turn a buttery yellow in fall; flowers are good for drying.

White Dome® (Hydrangea arborescens 'Dardom'): White, dome-shaped, lacecap flowers, 4 to 6 inches wide, appear in June on loosely branched, suckering stems with dark green foliage.

Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) 'Annabelle'photo: John Hagstrom

Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)Wild hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) White Dome ('Dardom')photo: John Hagstrom