Identification of the Four
Most Common Species of Hydrangeas

Four common species of hydrangeasA lot of confusion exists around when hydrangeas will bloom and when they can be pruned. Once a hydrangea is identified, pruning becomes fairly easy.

Since plant specialists already know what species their hydrangeas are, I have used common terms to describe the hydrangeas.

Below you will discover whether your hydrangea is a mophead, lacecap, snowball type ('Annabelle'), oakleaf, or paniculata (PG). This page will NOT tell you the name of a particular variety/cultivar. For example, you can find out if your hydrangea is a mophead hydrangea or an oakleaf hydrangea, but you will not discover if your mophead is an "Endless Summer" or a "Nikko Blue." That level of identification is beyond the scope of this site.

When trying to match your hydrangea to the pictures on these pages, pay close attention to the leaves and their description. Also, the bloom shapes are important, but they vary widely even within the same type (species) of hydrangea. I've tried to provide enough pictures to show the variety of shapes possible for each species and point out which are most common.

If you need to know which of these species will grow in your area, go to Which Hydrangeas Can I Grow?

TIP: For additional information about each picture below, rest cursor on the picture.

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    HYDRANGEA macrophylla

    Heart-shaped leaf (Image by Luc Balemans)mophead or lacecap leavesmophead or lacecap leaves
    In general, mophead and lacecap leaves are relatively thick and crisp, somewhat shiny, and often heart-shaped. Their edges are coursely toothed. They are approximately 4"-6" long and 3"-5" wide, but in some cases, they may grow even larger. Leaf stems (petiole) are short, causing the leaves to hug close to the main stems in most cases. Stems often have tiny black or red streaks or speckles. Mopheads and lacecaps have identical leaf forms.

    H. macrophylla 'Altona' -blue mophead bloomH. macrophylla 'Masja' - pink mophead bloom'Madame Emile Mouillere' - white mophead bloom The above blooms are all mopheads (H. macrophylla). Blue, pink and purple are the most common colors seen in mophead hydrangeas. In addition, this is the ONLY species with colored blooms when they are freshly open. All the other species are white. White is fairly uncommon in mophead hydrangeas. If the blooms on your hydrangeas are white, consider the possibility that they are not macrophyllas but are one of the other species.

    Lacecap bloom - (unknown variety) 'Mariesii' - lacecap bloom'Beaute Vendomoise' - huge blooms with individual blossoms as big as your hand

    The above blooms are lacecaps (H. macrophylla normalis). Lacecaps are identical to mopheads in every way except the shape of their blooms. The little buds in the center of the lacecap are the fertile flowers, and the large showy blossoms around the outer edge are the sterile flowers.

    Shrub form of H. macrophylla -Photo by Penny W. of South AfricaH. macrophylla normalis shrub form

    Growth habit of H. macrophylla with mophead blooms (left) and lacecap blooms.

    Link to more information and pictures of Mopheads and Lacecaps.

    HYDRANGEA arborescens

    'Annabelle' (often called Snowball)
    'Invincible Spirit'

    Annabelle leaves

    'Annabelle' is only one variety in the species H. arborescens. As you can see in the title to this section, there are many others. But since 'Annabelle' is the best known variety in this species, I will let it stand for the whole group.

    It is very difficult in pictures, to show differences between the leaves of 'Annabelle' and those of the common mophead. But they are not alike. (I hope to get better close-up pictures of the leaves this year.) The leaves of arborescens ('Annabelle') are generally heart shaped, thin, and floppier than the mopheads (macrophylla). They have a matt surface and a courser texture than the smooth leaf of the mophead. The leaf stems (petiole) are long and hold the leaf away from the main stem.

    Annabelle BloomAnnabelle bloomAnnabelle faded to green

    The blooms of 'Annabelle' may bring lollipops to mind. They are usually very large, and made up of tiny individual blossoms. There is one trait that sets 'Annabelle apart from most other hydrangeas. It is this - blooms open green, turn white for 2-3 weeks, and gradually turn green again (at which time they can be used in dried arrangements). These huge blooms are notorious for falling over in wind and rain storms.

    Growth habit of single 'Annabelle' plantGrowth habit of a group of 'Annabelle'

    Growth habit of 'Annabelle.'


    Wild vs True Annabelle

    Wild vs. true 'Annabelle'

    I often hear from gardeners whose Annabelle will not fully develop a large bloom. They report that the bloom tends to look like a flat, lacecap type bloom, which was not what they desired. I can only surmise that, unknowingly, they purchased a plant sold as Annabelle that was really a less spectacular type arborescens, closer in shape to the wild types (some of which are beautiful in their own subtle way). This is the reason for purchasing Annabelle (or any hydrangea for that matter) while it is blooming.

    NOTE: For specific questions, check out the FAQs on this site.
    Some pages may be reached only through the FAQs.
    Link to more information and pictures of 'Annabelle.'

    Identification of hydrangeas (continued)