Should You Plant Hydrangea in Full Sun or Shade?

Many plants from old fashioned gardens are enjoying new popularity because new cultivars have reintroduced their charm. Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp.) bloom all summer long, produce flowers that can be easily dried for winter arrangements and are undemanding guests in the garden. Although hydrangeas, like any flowering shrub, need light to flower properly, they are woodland natives and tolerate differing degrees of shade. If your hydrangea flowers poorly, try clearing some foliage around it to admit more light.

Hydrangea or Hortensia flower
credit: Noppol Mahawanjam/iStock/Getty Images
Mopheads like "Endless Summer" bloom on old wood and again on new wood.

Native Daughters

Two hydrangeas, smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, grow wild in eastern and southeastern North American woodlands.

Smooth hydrangea's old "Annabelle" cultivar grows dinner plate-sized globes of white blooms and tolerates full sun in northern gardens. Where summers are hot, plant "Annabelle" where it gets shade in the afternoon.

Oakleaf hydrangeas, named for their foliage, have conical flower clusters and put on a colorful display in fall. They prefer afternoon shade, but some cultivars, such as "Snowqueen" and "Alice" tolerate more sun. "Pee Wee" requires full shade and produces spectacular fall foliage. They may be hardy to USDA zone 5 with winter protection.

Viva la Difference

Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, have several names, including garden hydrangea and French hydrangea, and two forms -- mophead or Hortensia, and lacecap. Until recently, mountain hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata), which share cultural needs and hardiness characteristics, were also classified with bigleaf varieties. Mountain hydrangeas resemble smaller lacecaps and grow to USDA zone 5b with protection.

Bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas need part shade, and produce their colorful pink and blue blooms according to soil pH. "Nikko Blue" and "Merritt's Supreme" are common mopheads. Lacecaps resemble doilies and newer cultivars come in maroon and bicolors. Endless Summer hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla "Balimer") are re-bloooming varieties.

They tolerate morning and some afternoon sun in northern gardens. All hydrangeas in this group require continually cool, moist soil when planted in sunny locations.

Sun-Lover Panicle

Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata), hardy from USDA zone 3 through 8, tolerate more sun than their relatives. It performs best with a full morning's sunlight and afternoon shade, especially in warmer zones. "Grandiflora," also known as "P.G." or "Pee Gee, " is an old cultivar. "Limelight" fades from green through cream. "Chantilly Lace" fades from white to pink. "Tardiva" flowers later than many hydrangeas. All panicle hydrangeas can be grown as shrubs or trained as small trees.

Shade Lover

All hydrangeas tolerate partial shade, but only one, climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala or Hydrangea anomala petiolaris), hardy in USDA zones 5 through 7, grows and flowers in full shade. It will grow in USDA zone 8 if given at least full afternoon shade and uniformly moist soil. Climbing hydrangea blooms on a sturdy vine that grows 30 to 40 feet and provides winter interest with its shaggy "exfoliating" bark. Flowers are small and resemble lacecaps.