How Hydrangeas Change Color

There are two characteristics of hydrangeas that lead to all the confusion surrounding this perennially popular genus: whether they bloom on new or old wood, and their flower color. We’ve covered the former extensively on this page, so now, let’s talk plainly about which hydrangeas change color, how they do it, and which ones you can, and can’t, control. I’d like to go over each of the main types of hydrangeas you’ll find on our website and out at the garden center – bigleaf, mountain, panicle, smooth, oakleaf, and climbing hydrangeas.

Bigleaf and mountain: these hydrangeas change color based on soil chemistry

Bigleaf - Hydrangea macrophylla
Mountain - Hydrangea serrata

Bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas can shift from pink to purple or blue depending on the soil pH and the presence of aluminum. Aluminum is a naturally occurring element in many soils – in fact, it’s the third-most abundant element in the earth’s outer layer. However, aluminum is only available for the plant to metabolize in acidic soils. Therefore, in order to get blue flowers on a hydrangea, the soil must both contain aluminum and be acidic. If only one of those conditions is true, these same hydrangeas will bloom pink or red.

If you would like to change the color of your bigleaf or mountain hydrangea flowers, let’s talk about what to add to the soil to change the pH*. 

Alkaline soil – pH of 7.5 and above
– pink flowers
If your soil is neutral or acidic you can add lime to raise the pH.

Neutral soil – pH of 6.5 to 7.5
– usually a bit of a blend of color, leaning toward pink

Acidic soil – pH of 6.5 and below
– blue or purple flowers
If your soil is alkaline or neutral, you can apply garden sulfur with aluminum added. It’s really the aluminum that the plant absorbs that changes the flowers blue, but the soil needs to be acidic enough for the process to happen. Read the labels of the products at your garden center carefully to make sure the one you choose includes aluminum.

Close up of bigleaf hydrangea foliage that is turning purple

* Changing the soil pH takes time, so be patient. Don’t apply more than the recommended amount of the product you buy as this can drastically affect the hydrangea and surrounding plants. 

For example – if the pH is lowered too quickly, it can lead to some purple or brown tints in the foliage because the plant cannot take up phosphorous from the soil.

Panicle and oakleaf: these hydrangeas change color based on temperature and day length

Panicle - Hydrangea paniculata
Oakleaf - Hydrangea quercifolia

The progression from white or green flowers in summer to vivid shades of pink, burgundy, and red in late summer/early fall is a hallmark of panicle hydrangeas; certain oakleaf hydrangeas, like Gatsby Pink, also develop dazzling color as they mature.

The color change on these hydrangeas is brought on by the shorter days and cooler temperatures that develop as summer gives way to fall. There is really nothing that the gardener can do to encourage better color with these plants aside from keeping them well-watered so they don’t dry out and turn brown. 

One caveat here: not all panicle and oakleaf hydrangeas develop color. Many, like Puffer Fish panicle hydrangea, stay white up until the first frost, when they turn brown. 

Smooth and climbing: these hydrangeas don't undergo dramatic color changes

Smooth - Hydrangea arborescens
Climbing - Hydrangea hydrangeoides

Some hydrangeas bloom one color and stay that color until they age to dusty pale green or a papery light tan. There are a few exceptions within these species, but overall most smooth and climbing hydrangeas do this reliably.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did my hydrangea flowers turn brown so early?

Hydrangea flowers will turn brown prematurely (instead of having a gentle color transition) when they get too warm at night, aren’t receiving enough water, or are frequently getting overhead water. There is no way to revive a flower, so if you don’t like the look of the browned bloom, the best course of action is to remove those flowers.

Should I deadhead my brown hydrangea flowers?

It’s all about your preference. Sometimes they’ll age to a pretty, albeit, muted color. Some folks really like to see them stick around throughout the winter to provide some interest. If you don’t enjoy the color or the blooms just aren’t attractive, you can deadhead them to tidy up the plant’s appearance. Just follow the stem of the spent flower back to the first set of leaves and make a clean cut.

Can coffee grounds change a hydrangea’s flower color?

No, they cannot. Coffee grounds add organic matter to the soil but they do not impact the aluminum content or pH, so have no effect on color.

What determines the color of hydrangeas?

Two things: whether that species of the hydrangea changes color at all, and its specific genetics. Not all hydrangeas are capable of achieving the same intensity or hue in color – that’s a genetic trait.

Can you change the color of any hydrangea?

No you cannot, only bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas will change color due to soil chemistry.

How long does it take to change a bigleaf or mountain hydrangea’s flower color?

It can take a year or longer. Generally, the proper conditions must exist when the plant is forming its flower buds, not when it’s already open.

Can I use a home-prepared solution to change the soil pH?

It’s best to just use a pre-prepared lime or sulfur product. They are 100% proven to work, as opposed to the many garden myths that do not work and/or produce spotty results (like nails, coffee grounds, pennies, banana peels, etc.).

Does pH affect the color of all types of hydrangea?

No, it only affects bigleaf and mountain hydrangeas. All other types will have the same color blooms no matter the soil pH.

Written by
Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.

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5 Responses

  1. What is the main growth difference between H arborescens and H macrophylla?
    Is the “ Endless Summer” Hydrangeas macrophyllas, and why would mine be hot pink on one, while the blooms are always blues and lavender on 5 others? All are in the same soil and light and watered on the same days.

    1. Hydrangea arborescens are much more cold tolerant (down to USDA zone 3), do not change their flower color based on soil chemistry, and bloom on new wood. Hydrangea macrophylla are generally hardy to USDA zone 5, can change their flower color based on soil chemistry, and bloom on old wood. It’s not unusual for plants in the same yard to show some color variation in bigleaf hydrangeas, as the color you are seeing reflects the soil minerals and chemicals the plant is metabolizing. That can vary due to changes in your yard, fertilizer, or growth rates. If you want consistency, the best thing to do would be to treat everything with aluminum sulfate.

  2. Thank You for the information,I get all your emails from Proven Winner,I’ve learned alot from them. Your Proven Winner Hydrangeas are the Very Best!! Since moving I’ve planted 28 Hydrangeas,I get so many compliments. My only problem is the Japanese Beetles,they are Horrible,they love the new buds,leaves also,I do spray them with Harris Asian beetle spray,if you have a better idea,Please let me know. Warm Wishes

    1. Many thanks for your kind words! Japanese beetles really are the worst. It helps if you treat your lawn for grubs – grubs are the larval stage of the beetle, and by treating them at that stage, you can prevent damage before it starts. It’s even better if you can get with your neighbors and all treat your lawns for grubs. It will take a few years, but it will make a difference!

  3. Thank you for the info on Hydrangeas. I look forward to our Oak Leaf Hydrangeas color change in the fall. Take care and God bless. Ron

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