Old Wood vs. New Wood Hydrangea: What’s the Difference?

Written by Larissa Smith
Updated: August 4, 2023
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The hydrangea plant has been around since ancient times. There are over 75 species of hydrangeas and hundreds of varieties, but the most common ones are the old and new wood hydrangea. They are a genus of shrubs belonging to the Hydrangeaceae family and come in many colors, shapes, and sizes.

Japan is famous for its hydrangea season! As the rainy season starts in June and the famous cherry blossom season starts, you can witness the beauty of white, pink, and blue fields of hydrangea blooms. While visiting temples and shrines is a must-see in Japan, you can’t forget to walk through traditional gardens of various hydrangea species.

But what does it mean when someone says old wood and new wood hydrangea? How can you tell the difference between the two and which are the easiest to grow? Read on and learn more!

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Classification of Hydrangeas

ClassificationKingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Cornales
Family: Hydrangeaceae
Genus: Hydrangea
Common NamesHydrangea, hortensia
OriginAsia and the Americas
Plant TypeDeciduous shrub

Old Wood vs. New Wood Hydrangea: Origin

There are more than 75 species in the Hydrangea genus, and it got its name from the Greek word, ‘water vessel.’ These beautiful flowering plants are native to the Americas and many parts of Asia, such as Korea, Japan, and China. Most of the hydrangea species are shrubs and small trees. Sizes vary between 3-9 feet tall, while some lianas climb up trees like a vine and can grow 100 feet.

Hydrangeas got introduced to Europe in 1736, and botanists smuggled hydrangea cuttings from Japan in the 19th century. In Japan and Korea, they use Hydrangea serrata to make herbal teas. The Yatadera Temple in Nara, Japan, has more than 60 species of hydrangea, and over 10,000 of them spread across the garden.

 In 1999, Alabama made Hydrangea quercifolia its official state wildflower. You can find H. arborescens (smooth hydrangea) naturally growing in the Appalachian Mountains. You may even find hydrangea growing naturally across the southeastern and northwestern United States because the area has perfect weather conditions and soil type.

Bigleaf hydrangea varieties, such as lacecap and mophead, and climbing hydrangeas will flower on old wood. The best time to prune them is in the summertime. Although, some more experienced gardeners may say that you should deadhead instead of pruning. On the other hand, smooth and panicles hydrangeas will bloom on new growth. Prune before the growing season starts for the best flower growth.

Purple and blue hydrangea flowers growing through a white picket fence.

Old wood and new wood hydrangeas will add vibrance and color to your landscape.

©Janice Higgins/Shutterstock.com

Old Wood vs. New Wood Hydrangeas: Description

Hydrangeas are either evergreen or deciduous, and their flowers are pH indicators. This means that the sepals will be blue when the soil is acidic. Conversely, the sepals are red or pink when the soil is neutral. Therefore, some gardeners can change the look of their hydrangea bushes by manipulating the pH of the soil. For example, add organic materials such as citrus peels or coffee grounds to increase acidity.

Let’s learn the difference between old wood and new wood hydrangeas!

What Are New Wood Hydrangeas?

New wood hydrangeas bloom later in the growing season from the base of the plant, which is why they get called “new wood.” You can prune them any time of the season except for early summer to ensure they grow healthy and strong. When pruning new wood hydrangeas, you can leave a few old branches as a framework for the new growth.

Examples of new wood hydrangeas:

  • Annabelle: These stunning smooth hydrangeas are among the most beautiful varieties growing on new wood. They produce giant, pure white flowers and grow 3-5 feet tall. Annabelle hydrangeas are native to the southeastern United States, and the best time to see their blooms is between June and August.
  • Limelight: The flowers turn from green to white, then burgundy at the end of a long growing season. You will prune them the same way as Annabelle’s and expect a large display of colors between July and September.
Close-up of white Annabelle hydrangea flowers in a garden.

Annabelle (pictured) and limelight are two of the most common new wood hydrangeas.


What Are Old Wood Hydrangeas?

Old wood is a bigleaf variety with large round flowers in various colors such as pink, blue, and purple. Gardeners often find them difficult to grow because although they can resist cold weather, the flower buds can get damaged from spring frost or winter cold.

Old wood hydrangeas don’t grow as fast as new wood does. They take their time after planting themselves on last year’s wood. As a result, you might not see any blooms until the following year, but they are low-maintenance and do well when left undisturbed. One way to determine which hydrangea is old wood is its bloom times because new wood takes longer to flower as they have to grow back from scratch. So if you see flowers before June, it is likely old wood.

Examples of old wood hydrangeas:

  • Oakleaf: This deciduous hydrangea develops large clusters of flowers whose leaves have lobes that resemble oak tree leaves. They grow 4-8 feet tall, making their size and big leathery leaves contrast nicely with other delicate hydrangeas.
  • Mophead: These gorgeous old wood hydrangeas are known as one of the most popular garden shrubs. They grow large heads of white blossoms and big, luscious dinner-plate-sized leaves.

Old Wood vs. New Wood: Uses

Old and new wood hydrangeas are mostly grown for ornamental reasons. All parts of hydrangeas have cyanogenic glycosides, which makes them moderately toxic if consumed. Some people report smoking Hydrangea paniculata as they believe it is an intoxicant even though cyanide can cause severe illness or even death.

Hydrangea has a lot of cultural significance. You may have heard of ama-cha, which is a herbal tea in Japan. The leaves contain phylloducin, so when they get steamed or crushed, it gives them a sweet taste. On April 8th, Buddha’s birthday, ama-cha gets poured over a Buddha statue, and everyone who attends the ceremony drinks the tea.

Most hydrangeas are sterile and not very bee-friendly. However, some varieties can feed pollinators, such as Hydrangea arborescens, Hydrangea mycrophylla, and Hydrangea anomala petiolaris.

Old Wood vs. New Wood Hydrangeas: How to Grow

Hydrangeas grow fast, up to 2 feet a year, and while there are many species and varieties to choose from, their growing needs are similar. Plant your hydrangeas in the fall and early spring to ensure they have a healthy root system. Remember that hydrangeas are toxic to people and animals, so plant them away from those vulnerable to consuming them.

Tips for growing hydrangea:

  • Grow in any soil type.
  • Keep soil moist – especially in hot summers.
  • Prefers full to partial shade and mild temperatures.
  • Deadhead to improve new blooms.

While growing hydrangeas is fairly easy to do, some common problems occur. These include:

  • No blooms: Some hydrangeas don’t bloom each season, especially new wood as they will tend to grow the following season. In addition, damage to the buds or pruning too late in the season can cause them not to bloom.
  • Yellow leaves: Overfertilization, too much water, or too little water can all cause leaves to turn yellow.
  • Drooping leaves: You may find that hydrangea leaves will droop when they don’t get enough water. The soil must always be moist, especially when the weather is hot and dry.

Final Thoughts

Hydrangea is a genus of beautiful ornamental flowers with plenty of species you can choose from to grow. They will add so much beauty and color to your landscape. With many varieties to note, hydrangeas can offer landscapes a unique and interesting look. Most are easy to maintain and have their own growing requirements, but many rely on full to partial sun and consistently moist soil.

Old wood hydrangeas are shrubs that’ll bloom on last year’s wood, while new wood hydrangea stems grow in the present season and from the base of the plant. But, no matter which you choose, each will bring your property to life with its beauty.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joanne Strell/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Larissa Smith is a writer for A-Z Animals with years of experience in plant care and wildlife. After years spent in the South African bush while studying Nature Conservation, she found her way to writing about animals and plants in her work. She hopes to inspire others to appreciate and care for the precious world around them. Larissa lives in Florida with her two sons, a miniature golden retriever named Pupples, and a colorful succulent garden. In her spare time, she is tending to her garden, adventuring with her kids, and hosting “Real Housewives” watch parties with her friends.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

How do I know if I have old wood or new wood hydrangeas?

One of the easiest ways to determine if you have old wood or new wood hydrangeas is to see if buds are growing on the branches in the fall. If there are, it is old wood. If non, you will see new growth the following spring, known as new wood hydrangeas.

What happens if you prune old wood hydrangeas?

If you prune old wood in the spring, it will flower sporadically. The best time to prune old wood hydrangeas is in the late summer when the flowered begin to fade.

Which hydrangeas bloom the longest?

Original Endless Summer hydrangeas have long-lasting blooms from late spring to early fall.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

  1. Kyuhoshi, Available here: https://www.kyuhoshi.com/best-places-to-see-hydrangea-in-japan/
  2. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrangea
  3. American Scientist, Available here: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/curious-chemistry-guides-hydrangea-colors#:~:text=In%20a%20similar%20fashion%2C%20the%20color%20of%20many,sepals%20when%20grown%20in%20neutral%20to%20basic%20soils.