9 Great Varieties of Hydrangea

Lacecap hydrangea bloom.
Example of a lacecap hydrangea flower head.

KenWiedemann/Getty Images

The world of Hydrangea shrubs is nothing if not diverse. Most types grow in shrub form—but one type is a vine and another is pruned so as to assume a tree-like appearance. The genus includes bushes native to North America, but the Far East is rich in its own representatives. Technically, evergreen types do exist, but the hydrangeas widely grown by gardeners are deciduous.

Some perform best in part shade, but others can profit from a bit more sunlight. A most intriguing fact about hydrangeas is that, with some types, the very same plant can bear either pink or blue flowers, depending upon the soil in which it is growing.

5 Popular Species of Hydrangea

Hydrangea is a large genus containing more than 70 species, but there are a relatively small number that are commonly grown as landscape plants.

Bigleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla): These deciduous shrubs have a rounded habit and typically grow 3 to 6 feet tall, with large serrated oval or elliptical leaves. The long-blooming flowers that appear in summer are either "lacecap" in form—with flattened flower clusters; or "mophead" in form, with globe-shaped flower heads. It is from the bigleaf (macrophylla) group that the color-changing wonders of the hydrangea world hail; these shrubs produce flowers that are pink in alkaline soils, blue in acidic soils.

Panicle hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata): These deciduous shrubs are considerably larger than bigleaf or smooth hydrangeas, sometimes growing as much as 15 feet if not kept pruned. The flowers clusters have a distinctive cone-shape, not the round puffy balls seen on other types. They are late summer bloomers.

Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia): These are upright, multi-stemmed shrubs growing 6 to 8 feet tall, with large, lobed leaves that resemble those of an oak tree. The white to purplish-pink flowers appear in late spring to mid summer.

Climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea anomala petiolaris): These are deciduous woody vines with a sprawling habit. They can grow as long as 50 feet, with serrated leaves and flat-topped white flower clusters that appear in early summer. It clings easily to any structure, or will ramble over the ground as a ground cover plant.

Smooth hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens): These are quite similar in appearance to the bigleaf hydrangea, but this group has leaves that are smoother in texture. These are very cold-hardy plants, with an exceptionally long bloom period. These are also smallish shrubs, rarely growing more than 5 feet tall.

Here are nine examples of great hydrangea varieties you can grow to beautify your summer yard.

Gardening Tip

Different species of Hydrangea have different pruning needs. Those that bloom on old wood ("bigleaf" H. macrophylla) should be pruned immediately after they flower, which gives the plant a chance to develop the wood that will produce next year's flowers. Those that bloom on new wood ("smooth" H. arborescence and H. paniculata) should be pruned in later winter or early spring, just before new growth begins.

  • 01 of 09

    'Nikko Blue' (Hydranga macophylla 'Nikko Blue')

    Nikko Blue Hydrangea
    Photo: Ron Evans/Getty Images

    'Nikko Blue' is a mophead form of bigleaf hydrangea, with large, somewhat sloppy clusters of flowers. It has the typical large serrated leaves common to this group of hydrangeas, but blooms somewhat earlier than most varieties of the group. The pink or blue clusters of flowers appear in June, lasting for up to two months. Acidic soils cause the flowers to be blue; alkaline soil produces pink flowers.

    Native Area: Eastern U.S.

    USDA Growing Zones: 6–9

    Height: 4–6 feet

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

  • 02 of 09

    'Rhapsody Blue' (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Rhapsody Blue')

    Let's Dance Rhapsody Blue hydrangea (image) can be pink, purple or blue. It changes with conditions.
    My Let's Dance Rhapsody Blue hydrangea was purple in its second year. David Beaulieu

    Because bigleaf varieties are chameleons, you can't take their colors for granted. That's why you shouldn't become complacent and think that buying a 'Rhapsody Blue' means that, automatically, you are going to have a bush with blue flowers right away. Depending on your soil conditions, you may have to work at it for a while. Rhapsody Blue is another mophead form, a shrub that is on the smallish side that may produce rich purple flowers in acidic soils. It is a good rebloomer, and has attractive yellow or orange foliage in fall.

    Native Area: Eastern U.S.

    USDA Growing Zones: 5–9

    Height: 2–3 feet

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

  • 03 of 09

    Lady in Red (Hydrangea macrophylla 'Lady in Red')

    Fall Blossoms of 'Lady in Red' Hydrangea
    Fall Blossoms of 'Lady in Red' Hydrangea McCorkle Nurseries

    'Lady in Red' is a lacecap form of bigleaf hydrangea, with the signature lacy circle of tightly packed buds surrounded by a loose ring of fully-opened flowers. But those "buds" in the center are actually the fertile flowers of the plant, and the bigger, prettier outer "flowers" are just sterile sepals.

    'Lady in Red' is a small shrub, offering three seasons of interest. It has red stems and red-veined leaves. The lacecap flowers open in late spring, either pink or blue, depending on the soil's pH. Either way, the flowers then slowly mature to a lush burgundy rose. In fall, the leaves turn a rich purple color.

    Native Area: Eastern U.S.

    USDA Growing Zones: 6–9

    Height: 2 feet

    Sun Exposure: Part shade

  • 04 of 09

    PeeGee Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora')

    tree hydrangea

    The Spruce / Ariel Visci

    Often known as PeeGee hydrangea, H. paniculata 'Grandiflora', as well as other varieties of the species, is sometimes described as a "tree hydrangea," since it can be pruned to have a single trunk to create a tree-like appearance. Consequently, while the panicles (flowerheads) aren't particularly colorful, this is the type you'll want to grow when you need a specimen to make a statement with its striking plant form.

    As the cultivar name suggests, this plant has very large flower heads (up to 18 inches long), especially if you prune out competing leaders to create a tree form. The plant flowers robustly from mid to late summer.

    Native Area: Eastern and southern China, Japan

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8

    Height: 10–25 feet

    Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    'Bobo' (Hyrangea paniculata 'Bobo')

    Bobo hydrangea (image) picks up a tinge of pink in August. The blooms are mainly white.
    My Bobo hydrangea's sepals were already picking up a pink tinge by mid-August. David Beaulieu

    Although it is another panicle-type hydrangea, 'Bobo' won't remind anyone of a tree at a mere 3 feet tall. If you have a small yard and wish to shoehorn one more plant into it in a tight space, this dwarf could be your answer. The plant is engulfed by white flowers in summer, which gradually turn pink as they age.

    Native Area: Eastern and southern China, Japan

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–8

    Height: 30 to 36 inches

    Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade

  • 06 of 09

    Oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia)

    Oakleaf hydrangea bush in full bloom.
    normanack/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    The whole Hydrangea genus is blessed with flower heads that dry right on the living shrub —adding a bit of visual interest to your fall yard. But great fall foliage is not a feature for which these shrubs are generally known—except for the oakleaf type (H. quercifolia), which is an excellent shrub for fall color. The leaves of this shrub turn purple, orangey-bronze, or red in the fall.

    The oakleaf hydrangea is named for its distinctive lobed leaves. It produces white flowers in late spring to mid-summer, which gradually turn pinkish as they age. It is a moderate sized shrub that makes for a good informal hedge. Because it blooms on old wood, any pruning you do should be completed immediately after flowering is finished.

    Native Area: Eastern and southern China, Japan

    USDA Growing Zones: 5–9

    Height: 6–8 feet

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

  • 07 of 09

    Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp.petiolaris)

    Paving stone path and climbing Hydrangea Petiolaris flowers growing on the side of a residential home at springtime
    Perry Mastrovito / Design Pics / Getty Images

    Vine lovers will be happy to learn that there is a form of hydrangea that grow as a vine. But climbing hydrangeas (H. anomala subsp. petiolaris) are not just vines—they're flowering vines that grow well in the shade, year after year. If you've ever surveyed the list of vines that meet those qualifications, you know that the pickings are pretty slim (at least in the North). This vine will become a fixture in your shade garden.

    Native Area: Japan, Sakhalin, Korea, Taiwan

    USDA Growing Zones: 4–8

    Height: 30–50 feet

    Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade

  • 08 of 09

    'Invincibelle Spririt' (Hydrangea arborescens 'Invicibelle Spirit')

    Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea starts out almost red, then fades to a light pink. Here's a picture.
    Invincibelle Spirit hydrangea flowers are deep pink (to the point of almost being red) when they first appear. The color fades later to a light pink. David Beaulieu

    The H. abrorescens group of bigleaf hydrangeas was long dominated by 'Annabelle', valued for the impressive balls of white flowers that earned it the nickname "snowball bush." But 'Annabelle' has white flowers only. 'Invincibelle Spirit' is an improvement, offering pink flowers on plant that otherwise has all Annabelle's virtues.

    Native Area: North America

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–9

    Height: 3–4 feet

    Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    'Incrediball' (Hydrangea aborescence 'Incrediball')

    Incrediball Hydrangea


    skymoon13 / Getty Images 

    Another drawback of the H. aborescence classic, 'Annabelle', was the fact that the large blooms caused the branches to flop. The 'Incrediball' cultivar corrects that flaw. Despite the fact that 'Incrediball' has even larger puffy white flowers that hover over the foliage like clouds, its stems are sturdy enough to prevent the flopping that plagued 'Annabelle'.

    'Incredible' should be pruned down by one-third its height each spring, before new growth has begun.

    Native Area: North America

    USDA Growing Zones: 3–9

    Height: 4–5 feet

    Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade