How to Grow and Care for Chinese Snowball Viburnum

Chinese snowball viburnum shrub with white softball-sized flower blooms in partial sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) is a large woody shrub, a native of China, that rewards the gardener each April and May with hydrangea-like blooms that can reach up to six to eight inches across—the largest flowers to be found among the viburnum species. It has a rounded, vase-like growth habit with multiple branches sprouting from a thick central stem. The oval leaves are 3 to 6 inches long with serrated edges, and the foliage is thick enough to make Chinese snowball an effective hedge or screening plant. In the southern end of its hardiness range, Chinese snowball is considered semi-evergreen, but for most gardeners, it is a fully deciduous shrub that loses its leaves in winter.

Chinese snowball viburnum has a medium growth rate; 1 to 2 feet per year is typical. It is normally planted as a potted nursery specimen in the fall.

Common Name Chinese snowball, Chinese snowball viburnum
Botanical Name Viburnum macrocephalum 'Sterile'
Family Adoxaceae
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 6–10 feet tall and wide, taller in warmer climates
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Moist, well-draining
Soil pH Slightly acidic to slightly alkaline (6.5–7.5)
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 6-9 (USDA)
Native Area Asia (China)

Chinese Snowball Viburnum Care

Chinese snowball viburnum is a large shrub that can grow up to 20 feet tall in the southern end of its hardiness range, but it usually tops out at 10 to 15 feet tall in cooler climates. It is easy to grow in a location with slightly acidic, well-drained soil, and with exposure that gives it six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. In USDA hardiness zone 6, Chinese snowball viburnum should be planted in a sheltered location that will protect the shrub from drying winter winds.

Plant the shrub in a well-prepared hole at the same depth it was in its nursery container, and keep it very well-watered for its first year. Dense clay soils should be amended with plenty of organic material (peat moss, compost) before planting. This is a large shrub so space them at least ten feet apart.

This shrub is especially good at resisting the common bacterial leaf spots and fungal diseases such as powdery mildew that plague other viburnum species, and it has virtually no serious insect or disease problems.

Chinese snowball viburnum shrub with white softball-sized flower blooms covering branches in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Chinese snowball viburnum shrub branch with light green softball-sized flower blooms and leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Chinese snowball viburnum shrub with long branches and white softball-sized flower blooms at ends in front of sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Chinese snowball viburnum can tolerate full sun to partial shade conditions, but for optimal flower production, it requires at least six hours of full sun each day. Too much shade will cause the blooms to become sparse and the shrub to become leggy.

Soil

This beautiful shrub needs well-drained, slightly acidic soil for best performance. However, it is tolerates a wide range of soil conditions and it even tolerates slightly alkaline soil. Avoid soils that hold onto too much water, as Chinese snowball viburnum does not like to be waterlogged.

Water

Keep the soil evenly moist throughout the year. Depending on the temperature in your area, the watering schedule will vary, but determining and sticking to a watering schedule will help the Chinese snowball viburnum produce the most stunning show of blooms. Be wary of overwatering, though, especially if the plant is growing in dense soil. A mature shrub can tolerate some drought.

Temperature and Humidity

While there are other viburnum species that are suitable as far north as USDA hardiness zone 2 or as far south as zone 10, Chinese snowball is best in more moderate climates, zones 6 to 9. It can survive winter temperatures down to about minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit, but it struggles in extremely hot climates, where it might need to be shaded from the intense rays of the sun and require more water than usual. 

It tolerates both arid and humid atmospheric conditions, provided soil moisture is adequate, but it may be susceptible to mild fungal disease issues in very humid conditions.

Fertilizer

Fertilize Chinese snowball viburnums at planting, and then annually, immediately after the shrub has finished flowering. For best results, use an all-purpose balanced fertilizer that is formulated for woody shrubs.

Types of Chinese Snowball Viburnum

You might see this plant sold as Viburnum macrocephalum 'Sterile', but there are no other named cultivars of Chinese snowball viburnum. The wild form is sometimes known as V. macrocephalum f. keteleeri, and it is less showy than the cultivated variety usually sold commercially.

Here are some hybrid viburnums that have V. macrocephalum as one of its parents:

  • Viburnum macrocephalum x V. carlessii is known as fragrant snowball. It has heart-shaped leaves but smaller flowers than V. macrocephalum. Blossoms are fragrant and the plant is hardy as far north as USDA zone 4.
  • Viburnum 'Nantucket' is a smaller hybrid crossed between V. x 'Eskimo'  and V. macrocephalum f. keteleeri. It is another snowball viburnum, but it does not have the excellent disease resistance of Chinese snowball. It is hardy in zones 6 to 9.

Pruning

After flowering, the Chinese snowball viburnum can benefit from some light pruning to shape the shrub and remove dead or diseased branches. Ideally, this shrub has a classic vase-shaped growth habit with a rounded top, and pruning efforts should be aimed at maintaining that shape. It is also possible to train the plant as a small tree by systematically favoring a large central leader while trimming away lower offshoot branches.

Every three or four years, this shrub can benefit from a more severe pruning that cuts the stems down to 2 to 3 feet, which will control the size and prompt plentiful new growth. You should expect that growth will be slightly stalled during the first growing season following a heavy pruning, but very vigorous in the following years.

If you are planning a hard rejuvenation pruning, winter is a good time to perform this task.

Propagating Chinese Snowball Viburnum

Chinese snowball viburnum produces sterile flowers, so the best way to propagate it is by softwood cuttings. For best results, take cuttings in the spring from shoots with vigorous new growth. Here's how:

  1. Using clean, sharp pruning shears or scissors, take angled cuttings that are four to six inches long.
  2. Remove any leaves from the bottom of the cutting to expose the nodes, and dip the end of the cutting in rooting hormone.
  3. Plant the cuttings in small pots filled with a well-draining potting mix. A simple formula of half perlite half peat moss is sufficient, but any commercial potting mix will also work.
  4. Place the potted cuttings in a plastic bag to keep the humidity high, and then leave them in a brightly lit area out of direct sunlight. Roots should start to grow within two to four weeks but the timeframe can vary.
  5. When the cuttings are rooted, remove the plastic bag and continue growing the cutting in a sheltered, bright location.
  6. Once new leaves begin to appear, the cutting can be transplanted into the landscape. Cuttings begun in spring are generally left to grow in the pot through the summer before planting in the fall.

Overwintering

Chinese snowball viburnum requires no special winter protection, provided it is growing within its established hardiness range. Zone 6 gardeners might want to provide some form of windbreak against harsh winter winds.

How to Get Chinese Snowball Viburnum to Bloom

Unlike most other species of viburnum, the Chinese snowball blooms are both sterile (meaning they do not produce fruit) and fragrance-free. These large blooms make popular cut flowers and make a particular stunning arrangement when several flowers are cut and arranged in a tall vase.

  • Failure to bloom is sometimes traced to poorly timed pruning. Ideally, these shrubs should be pruned immediately after they flower. Early spring pruning can remove the flower buds for the current season, but the shrub will return to a normal pattern the following year.
  • A hard rejuvenation pruning will often stimulate intense flowering, though there will be a delay in seeing these results. The first spring after such pruning will see much-reduced flowering, but the following spring will produce a magnificent display.
  • While it's typical to fertilize these shrubs after they flower, you may want to add an early spring feeding with balanced fertilizer if your shrub is not flowering fully.
  • If surrounding trees have grown up to shade your shrub, the shade might be hindering flower production. Good pruning of surrounding trees might improve the exposure and return your shrub to profuse blooming.

Common Problems With Chinese Snowball Viburnum

These are very hardy, easy-to-grow shrubs, but you can encounter a few issues.

Shrub Is Overgrown and Sparse

In the right conditions, these can be surprisingly large shrubs. If a Chinese snowball viburnum is overwhelming its space, perform a hard rejuvenation pruning in late winter. You'll be rewarded with a denser, more compact shrub that flowers intensely within a year. Such hard pruning should be performed every few years.

Leggy sparseness is sometimes the result of a plant growing in too much shade. Pruning surrounding trees to provide your Chinese snowball viburnum with more sunlight may help it become fuller.

Leaves Are Shriveling, Branches Are Dying Back

While many shrubs are fairly tolerant of drought once they are established, Chinese snowball viburnum needs consistent, regular watering—at least 1 inch per week through combined rainfall or irrigation. Even a few weeks of no water can cause dieback to begin.

Leaves Are Covered With Whitish Powder

This is powdery mildew, a very common soil-borne fungal disease that affects many shrubs. In some climates (warm, humid conditions) powdery mildew is unavoidable and gardeners learn to tolerate it because it is almost never fatal. Ground-level soaking rather than overhead watering will help prevent the disease from spreading because this keeps the spores from splashing up onto the leaves. If the appearance of powdery mildew is unacceptable to you, spraying with fungicides can be used early in the season to prevent the disease from taking hold.

FAQ
  • How can I use this shrub in the landscape?

    Because of its size, the Chinese snowball viburnum is great as a border plant or a living privacy fence, and it can even be trained as a small tree. After the flowering period, this dense, round shrub is fairly understated, blending easily into the rest of the landscape and allowing the summer flowers to steal the show.

  • My climate is too cold; is there a similar species that I can use?

    If you want the huge white flowers of Chinese snowball viburnum but live in a climate that is too cold, then try fragrant snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum), a hybrid cross between Viburnum macrocephalum and V. carlessii. Its blossoms are not quite as large as those of Chinese snowball, but fragrant snowball is reliably hardy in zones 4 to 8.

  • How long does a Chinese snowball viburnum live?

    In a good growing location and with routine care, including rejuvenation pruning every few years, this shrub will live for many decades; 50-year-old shrubs are common.