Key Points

Hydrangea paniculata is one of the most popular hydrangea varieties and is famous for blossoming with large flower heads that start out a striking green color in the summer. This unique green shade is why they gained the name “limelight.” Throughout the summer, the bright green flowers turn white. As the summer season closes, the flowers will eventually turn into an autumn shade of pink. 

These vibrant colors contribute to the popularity of the limelight hydrangea variety. The popularity of this flower started in the 1980s when a plant breeder named Pieter Zwijnenburg crossed two hydrangea varieties resulting in Hydrangea paniculata’ Limelight’. But did you know that the “limelight hydrangea” can refer to a shrub and a tree?

Many people mistakenly believe that it is two different plants because the “panicled hydrangea” can grow as a tree or shrub. However, that is a myth! This article compares and contrasts the limelight hydrangea shrub with the limelight hydrangea tree.

We will bust some myths about what separates the two and explore whether they are different plants. In addition, we will provide tips about which plant will fit your home landscaping needs best! By the end, you will know all the key facts about caring for your plant and whether you should grow your plant as a shrub or a tree. Let’s dive in! 

Descriptions of Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree

Stunning bi-colored limelight Prime Hydrangea shrub in full bloom.
The cone-shaped flower heads will start as lime green in the early summer, become white later in the season, and then turn pink in the autumn.

Dee Browning/Shutterstock.com

What differentiates a limelight hydrangea shrub from a limelight hydrangea tree? Contrary to popular belief, nothing separates these two on a fundamental level. They are the same variety as the Hydrangea paniculata species, a member of the Hydrangea genus and Hydrangeaceae family. Hydrangeaceae is a family of flowering plants which includes eight genera. One of these genera, Hydrangea, contains more than 70 species of plants, including Hydrangea paniculata. Hydrangea paniculata, also known as the “panicled hydrangea” because of its unique flowers, has many different cultivars. The cultivars of the Hydrangea paniculata species vary in size, color, flowers, and shape of their flowers. Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight,’ also known colloquially as a “panicle hydrangea” or “the limelight hydrangea,” is one of these cultivars. 

The limelight hydrangea is a deciduous shrub known for its green (lime-colored) flowers, which bloom in the summer. These flowers typically blossom between July and September and start out green before fading to white and turning pink or rose. 

Though Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ is classified as a shrub, many growers and plant sellers refer to growing “limelight hydrangea trees.” Is that correct?

As a matter of fact, Hydrangea paniculata has the unique quality of becoming tree-like through pruning and intentional care over time. Through this training and pruning process, some growers can transform the bush-like hydrangea shrub into the shape and appearance of a small tree.

Other Tree Cultivars of Hydrangea paniculata

Several different hydrangea varieties can be grown into trees. Some other varieties that can be grown as trees in addition to Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ are:

  • Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’: This variety can grow to be 25 feet tall. 
  • Hydrangea paniculata ‘Big Ben’: This variety can grow to be 6 to 8 feet tall.
  • Hydrangea paniculata ‘Pinky Winky’: This variety grows to be up to 8 feet tall.
  • Hydrangea paniculataBobo‘: This is a dwarf variety, which only grows to be about 3 feet tall, but which takes on the shape of a tree.

Let’s now discuss how your limelight hydrangea may look different if you grow it as a shrub or tree.

Characteristics Limelight Hydrangea
Scientific Name Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’
Family Hydrangeaceae
Type of Plant Flowering shrub, can be pruned into a tree shape
USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Description Limelight hydrangeas are flowering shrubs that grow 6 to 8 feet tall and span 6 to 8 feet across. They have dark green leaves and flowers that begin in the summer as bright green before turning white and then pink in the autumn. These flower heads are cone-shaped, reach 6 to 12 inches, and are dispersed across the shrub. The “panicle” flowers grow in clusters. Rather than each branch growing one flower, each creates large clusters of flowers growing together in large clumps. Hydrangea paniculata, also known as the “panicled hydrangea,” refers to flowers.

Forms of Limelight Hydrangea

Description of Limelight Hydrangea Shrub

When grown as a shrub, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ can reach up to 6 or 8 feet tall, with dark green leaves and flower heads that can be up to 12 inches across and stay upright. The cone-shaped flower heads will start as lime green in the early summer, become white later in the season, and then turn pink in the autumn. These flower heads cover the bush, with a good distribution of flowers scattered throughout the entire shape of the shrub. The green leaves will subsequently turn red for the fall season. 

In the United States, Hydrangea paniculata’ Limelight’ grows well in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. This makes the plant resilient in the face of cooler climates. Because Hydrangea paniculata’ Limelight’ is also relatively easy to care for and adaptable to various soil conditions, it is an excellent option for many different purposes. In the United States, Hydrangea paniculata’ Limelight’ is planted in cities, home gardens and rural areas. You’ll also find the flowers in states with hot, humid summers and states with cold drops in the fall and winter. 

Description of Limelight Hydrangea Tree

Hydrangea, The Limelight Nightclub - Manhattan, Beauty, Blossom, Botany
The major difference between a Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ shrub and tree is not in the biology but in the cultivation methods.

iStock.com/ironstuff

When grown as a tree, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ has many of the same qualities as its shrub counterpart. The color progression from green to white to pink is the same. Limelight hydrangea trees also produce dark green leaves that turn red in the fall. They will also bloom with beautiful, large flower heads that reach 6 to 12 inches across and are upright cone shapes. When grown in tree form, limelight hydrangeas also thrive in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. They are resilient to a range of climate conditions. In these respects, limelight hydrangea shrubs and trees are the same. 

The tree shape is the major difference between the limelight hydrangea shrub and the tree version. While it can still grow 6 to 8 feet tall, the upright shape makes the limelight hydrangea tree suitable for either container growing or planting outdoors. However, keeping the tree shape requires intentional, constant care and pruning. The mature tree will have branches and leaves that are approximately 3 feet from the ground. To keep the tree shape, some gardening experts recommend cutting the tree back by a third of its height to encourage new growth. 

Key Differences

As described above, the major difference between a Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ shrub and tree is not in the biology but in the cultivation methods. Contrary to popular belief, there is no difference between the shrub and the “tree.” The limelight hydrangea will naturally develop into a shrub with many branches and unrestricted growth. Limelight hydrangea “trees” will revert to their shrub-like “roots” if left unpruned. Growing a limelight hydrangea tree takes pruning and care.

Learn more about cultivating your shrub or tree according to your vision!

Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree: History

Hydrangeas were first cultivated in East Asia, particularly in countries such as China and Japan. Hydrangea paniculata is native to this part of the world but spread to other countries as early as the 1700s and 1800s or earlier. A German plant collector named Philipp Franz von Siebold fell in love with the hydrangea plant in Japan and published a record of the flowering plant in his second book, Flora Japonica. This book studied flowering plants in Japan and included his description of the plant. von Siebold is partially credited for popularizing the plant. Others trace the popularity of hydrangeas to a variation that came to Europe from North America in the 1700s. However, the specific “panicled hydrangea” is recorded as originating in Japan. It entered European awareness and record after being described by Siebold in 1829.

Today, hydrangeas are incredibly popular flowering shrubs. However, among the different types, Hydrangea paniculata is a unique species. It is set apart from others because it has the potential to grow into a tree shape. It just needs the help of human cultivators. Pruning this species is easy, and the plant itself is resilient, making them uniquely suited to shaping into the tree form. When a small plant is still being cared for in a nursery, plant growers prune away the branches of the limelight hydrangea shrub. This pruning transforms it into a tree shape with a single, central trunk. 

Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree: Cultivation

Hydrangea paniculata pruned to grow as trees.
Cultivating a limelight hydrangea tree is labor-intensive.

SariMe/Shutterstock.com

One of the biggest differences that set apart the limelight hydrangea shrub from the tree form is that cultivating a limelight hydrangea tree takes much more effort! Because its natural shape is full and bushy, growing a limelight hydrangea tree requires regular pruning. This process begins when the limelight hydrangea is first grown in a plant nursery. This means that cultivating a limelight hydrangea tree is more labor-intensive for the home gardener and more costly for the nursery that raises the plant. As a result, purchasing a limelight hydrangea tree can be more expensive than buying a bush.

Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree: Cost

As described above, a lot of labor, time, and effort is involved in caring for a hydrangea tree. This can contribute to a greater cost for a home gardener seeking to purchase a hydrangea tree at a plant nursery. In fact, you can buy multiple small hydrangea shrubs for the same price as one pruned hydrangea tree. For that reason, if you need a clear preference between the two, let cost be your guide. It may be worth starting with a small hydrangea shrub. You will likely spend less!

Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree: Growing Conditions

You will find that this plant is suitable for growing in a wide range of climates.

Limelight hydrangea shrubs and trees are pretty easy to grow. They adapt to various climates and environments and grow well in a city setting, near roads, or in quieter rural areas. They will tolerate alkaline soil and sandy soil, loam, or clay, as long as there is good soil drainage. The shrubs and the trees will also tolerate full sun and partial shade, especially in hotter climates. In general, limelight hydrangeas thrive in moist soil. Because of that, the soil must drain well. Being left in standing water could lead to root rot and other diseases.

Typically, the plants will thrive outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9. However, if you live in an area outside these zones, you have another option. Limelight hydrangea trees can be potted in containers. You will need to pay close attention to maintaining the soil moisture. It will be vital that you keep the indoor conditions sufficiently humid. You will also need to ensure that your plant gets sufficient light. However, if these conditions are met, you may be able to keep your tree indoors during the harshest part of the winter. Make sure you use a pot at least 18 or 20 inches across! It would be best to buy a container deep enough for the roots to spread. Then, in the spring or summer, you may move your hydrangea tree outdoors once again.

Limelight Hydrangea Shrub vs. Tree: Considerations

Hydrangea flowers in pink, blue, lilac and purple
Beautiful hydrangea flowers. Pink, blue, lilac, violet, purple bushes blooming in spring and summer.

iStock.com/Maryna Andriichenko

There are also several considerations you may want to keep in mind. Here are some questions to ask yourself when determining whether to buy and plant a limelight hydrangea shrub or a tree: 

  • What is your plant budget? Are you willing to spend more money to purchase a plant pruned into a tree shape?
  • Do you want to grow a plant from its smallest size or a plant closer to maturity?
  • What time are you willing to devote to plant maintenance and upkeep (including regular pruning)? 
  • Do you want to grow the plant outdoors? Or are you seeking an option that can be grown in a container (which would suit only the tree version)? Do you live in a climate suitable for growing the hydrangea shrub or tree outside?

Your answers to these questions may help you decide which of the two options best fits your desires and needs.

In Summary

This article does not compare two different plants. Instead, it reviews two strategies for growing Hydrangea paniculata, ‘Limelight,’ also known as the limelight hydrangea. You may prefer it in its natural shrub form. Or perhaps you like it when cultivated to grow in a tree shape. Either way, limelight hydrangeas are beautiful flowering plants. They will bring reliable, consistent flowers in a bright green shade to your home or garden each summer. Whichever one you choose to grow may depend on the time you wish to spend pruning your plant, the needs of your yard or garden, and whether a shrub or tree fits better into your vision for your yard’s landscape. 

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