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Chinese Snowball Viburnum and Other Snowball Bushes

Generations of southerners have welcomed Chinese snowball viburnum, Viburnum macrocephalum 'Sterile', into their gardens. With multitudes of flower clusters up to eight inches across, this classic shrub is a thing of beauty when it blooms.

This semi-evergreen shrub grows in hardiness zones 6-9 in full sun to partial shade, though it may need protection from hot afternoon sun in the most southern regions. My own Chinese snowball viburnum gets full sun until about 2P.M., after which it is in the shade.

Chinese snowball viburnum reaches 12 to 20 feet tall and wide with a dense round form, so it needs to be sited where it will have space to grow. It can be trained as a small tree, and it makes a wonderful specimen. It also fits well into a woodland garden. It blooms on the previous season's old wood, so it should be pruned for shaping soon after it finishes blooming. That is also the best time to fertilize. It likes acidic, loamy soil that is moist but well drained; however, it will adapt to a wide range of soil conditions. It is a low maintenance shrub that is rarely bothered by pests or diseases. 

The plant usually blooms from late April through early May, though bloom time is later in more northern regions. The flower clusters start out lime green, then mature to pure white. The flowers are not fragrant, but they do attract butterflies. They are sterile, so there is no danger of invasiveness. As beautiful as the blooms are in the garden, they also make outstanding cut flowers. 

There is sometimes confusion about the identity of this shrub. It is often mistaken for hydrangea, for the blooms resemble those of Hydrangea arborescens, also called Annabelle hydrangeas, as well as Hydrangea paniculata, also called PeeGee hydrangeas. Chinese snowball viburnum is a member of the Caprifoliceae family, while hydrangeas are a members of the Hydrangeacea family. Some of the differences:

Chinese snowball viburnum has smaller leaves than hydrangeas.

Chinese snowball viburnum is a larger shrub than Annabelle hydrangea, which only grows 4-6 feet.

Chinese snowball viburnum has round flower clusters, while PeeGee's are cone-shaped.

Chinese snowball viburnum prefers a sunnier location than the hydrangeas and is more drought tolerant. 

Chinese snowball viburnum blooms earlier and has a shorter bloom time than the hydrangeas, though sometimes it will have some late summer blooms. 

Chinese snowball viburnum blooms on old wood and should be pruned soon after blooming, while Annabelle and PeeGee, which bloom on new wood, are best pruned in late winter or early spring.

Be aware that other shrubs are also called Snowball, including the mophead types of Hydrangea macrophylla, the previously mentioned Hydrangea arborescens and Hydrangea paniculata and also two other types of viburnum: Viburnum opulus, which is also called as European cranberry bush and guelder rose; and Viburnum plicatum, the Japanese snowball. 

So when looking for a snowball, remember that not all snowballs are the same. It really helps to know the Latin!



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Reader Comments (22)

It IS beautiful! I feel like I've seen it around here, too, but maybe I've just seen the Hydrangeas that look like it. I have the Viburnum opulus, which looks nothing like it. It has a totally different type of flower. Good advice to go with the Latin name! This seems to happen quite a bit (same common name for totally different plants). Your photos are lovely, too.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPlantPostings

I was about to say it looks like a Hydrangea and then you mentioned and explained it. I like it! Quite dramatic and would be at home to an English garden :)

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

My snowball viburnum is absolutely COVERED in still-green blooms! Last year (my first year) it only had 22 blooms. This year, well, I've already lost count! One of my favorites for sure.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristi {Jealous Hands}

A lovely shrub if you have the space, thank you for bring it to our attention Debbie.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I like the whole Viburnum family and have quite a few of them. My Viburnum macrocephalum Sterile is quite large now, on our boundary with the field next door. When in flower it is so beautiful, I noticed the other day that it is covered in lovely buds, at the moment they are tightly closed but in a couple of weeks I should be enjoying it.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

I love the multi-season appeal of Viburnums and, while I gave 3 to a friend years ago when she moved into her then-new home, I've never planted any in my own gardens. Their size was the principal issue in my former garden. Unfortunately, for the time being, their moisture requirements may be the biggest drawback to planting in my "new" garden.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

I had to rip mine out a few years ago. Viburnum leaf beetles destroyed it. I sprayed with insecticidal soap but it didn't do much to those buggers. I miss it.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

People sometimes confuse my Japanese snowball bush (Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' with hydrangea. But, as you say, viburnum is much more drought tolerant than hydrangea. Ideal for people who can't grow hydrangeas because the soil is too dry.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

A beautiful shrub and lovely shots of it too. The flowers are very similar to a Hydrangea but the leaves are different. Your plant looks lush and healthy.

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

I want one, I'm in loooooovvve. Wonder if they are hardy here, it's zone 5 brrrr cold.

Yours are so gorgeous.


April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

It’s lovely! And it’s huge!
Not really for my tiny garden but I’d love to have one. I used to have a Viburnum ‘Eskimo’, but it eventually died, it was also called snowball bush!

April 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHelene

I can remember the very first time I saw this shrub, I was absolutely smitten. It is beautiful; and you are right - it always helps to know your latin!

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Shoesmith

Very beautiful viburnum, I will have to look into it. I would love to see a photo of the whole plant. Your comment about snowballs is so true. It is very frustrating when people expect me to know what plant they are talking about with just a generic common name.

I have Viburnum prunifolium and V. trilobum, which is my favorite Viburnum. I'm thinking of getting a V. carlesii this spring.

April 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjason

Absolutely beautiful Deb!! :) Love your close up pictures! My Viburnum Snowball Bush is also beautiful this year, did you see my post?


April 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermichael

Good post, Deb. I especially liked your second to last line,"So when looking for a snowball, remember that not all snowballs are the same." Many confuse the various shrubs, and you are right in knowing the Latin names.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

The fragrance from our Viburnums shout Spring throughout the landscape. Wish they could last all summer long.

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

I saw some Chinese snowballs at Duke gardens once, and they were incredible! They were good sized trees just covered in massive balls of blooms! So stunning. I couldn't quite figure out what kind of tree it was until I saw the sign - like you said, there are quite a few different 'snowball' plants out there!

April 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

The flowers are beautiful, snowy white with a tinge of green.

April 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

Thanks for this post. I was in Atlanta last weekend visiting my sister and admired these. Guess I'll pass since they need some shade.

April 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Jones

You have shown me a snowball that I really do like, and yes I can see how it would be mistaken for the Hydrangea. Beautiful as it is, I must admit I like my Spring Viburnum to be fragrant.

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteralistair

I don't have the chinese viburnum but I do have Annabelle...they won't be blooming for at least 6 weeks or more.

April 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View
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