The Best Hydrangeas from the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden
We love these versatile shrubs for their big, beautiful, long-lasting flowers. Here are the best and most beautiful hydrangea varieties we've been trying out in our test garden.
Hydrangeas always make a statement with their profusion of flowers that last from summer into fall. There are a few main types of hydrangeas you'll commonly find in gardens, known as bigleaf, oakleaf, panicle, and smooth hydrangeas. You may also see mountain and climbing hydrangeas. Every year, exciting varieties of these types debut in garden centers and online nurseries, and here in the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden, we try out a few new ones, along with tried-and-true favorites to evaluate their performance. Though it's tough to decide which ones are the best of the best, these are our top picks for best-blooming hydrangea varieties that reliably look spectacular year after year without a lot of care.
Earliest Bloomer: Blushing Bride
This bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla) variety is part of the Endless Summer series and is one of the best blooming hydrangeas since it blooms so early. Starting in late spring, this tidy, 3- to 5-foot-tall shrub is covered with creamy white mophead-type flower heads that are tinged with soft pink. While it will grow in full sun, it appreciates afternoon shade in warmer regions. And though it is hardy to USDA Zone 4 through 9, it may need some winter protection like a thick layer of mulch around the stems in colder areas.
Best Panicle Hydrangea: Fire Light
A newer variety of panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), Fire Light has so much going for it. For starters, its white flowers turn a rich, reddish-pink as they bloom from summer to fall. This plant grows about 8 feet tall in sun to part shade and has strong stems that won't flop over despite the weight of its football-size flower heads. It is also very hardy, overwintering in Zones 3-8.
Best Oakleaf Hydrangea for Full Shade: Gatsby Star
Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) make unique, cone-shape additions to shady woodland gardens, thanks to their stand-out white flowers that bloom in late summer and take on dusky-rose hues in the fall. This variety stands out both for its double flowers and for its pointed (not rounded) petals. "Fall leaf color on oakleaf hydrangeas is a bonus," says Sandra Gerdes, manager at the Better Homes & Gardens Test Garden. It gets about 8 feet tall and is hardy in Zones 5-9, though it may need winter protection in colder regions.
Biggest Blooms: Incrediball
If you're looking for big-as-your-head blooms, this is one of the best hydrangea varieties for you. This smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) has truly incredible white flower heads that can reach 12 inches across and last all summer into fall. It also boasts sturdy 4- to 6-foot-tall stems that won't flop over under all those hefty flowers. The most abundant floral show happens when this hydrangea is planted in full sun, Gerdes says, but she adds that in the Test Garden, it's still quite pretty in a part-shade location. It is hardy in Zones 3-9.
Most Abundant Flowers: Limelight
Blooming from late summer into fall, this classic type of panicle hydrangea produces a profusion of huge, conical, white flowers tinged with light green that slowly age to reddish pink. It grows about 8 to 10 feet tall in full sun or part shade. "This variety is tough, cold-hardy, and doesn't mind a hard pruning if needed," Gerdes says. It is hardy in Zones 3-8.
Coolest Leaf Color: Little Honey
This dwarf oakleaf hydrangea features golden foliage that turns a mellow crimson in fall. Its color is brightest when planted where it gets morning sun but it will still shine in a full shade garden. Its cone-shape, white flowers appear in midsummer. "Even though extremely cold winter temperatures may cause the flower buds to die, resulting in little or no bloom for the next year, we don’t mind because the foliage is so attractive," Gerdes says. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall and is hardy in Zones 5-9.
Best Hydrangea for Containers: Little Quick Fire
A dwarf variety of panicle hydrangea, Little Quick Fire, grows 3 to 5 feet tall and typically blooms a month earlier than other hydrangeas of its type. The flowers start out white when they open in early summer, then blush pink in sun or part shade. Its shorter stature is just right for smaller gardens or containers. It's hardy in Zones 3-8, and when winter arrives, sink the pots into the ground or place them in an unheated garage surrounded by mulch for insulation to keep the roots from getting too cold.
Compact Yet Colorful: Tiny Tuff Stuff
The name says it all about this variety of mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata). Tiny Tuff Stuff grows only 2 feet tall and blooms profusely despite heat and cold. But it gets even better because its lacecap-style flowers are stunning all summer long. They can be pastel blue, pink, and white, depending on your soil pH. "The flowers look delicate but are long-lasting and eye-catching," Gerdes says. Plus they often rebloom later in the season after its first flush of flowers. It is hardy in Zones 5-9.
These are just a few of our favorite types of hydrangeas in our Test Garden this year. But of course, there are many more hydrangea species and varieties, each offering their own winning characteristics—so go ahead and try a few! They make long-blooming accent plants in a garden bed, or you can try growing a row of them to make a colorful, low-maintenance hedge. Smaller varieties even make excellent choices for containers.