Abstract A simple synthesis route to hierarchical ZnO arrays on zinc substrate in aqueous solution containing zinc nitrate and ammonia water was reported, without the assistance of any seeds, catalysts and surfactants. The as-prepared product consisted of very thin nanosheets attached onto the top of well-aligned nanorod arrays. A possible growth mechanism was proposed. The room-temperature photoluminescence spectrum showed UV emission around 398 nm and diverse visible emission peaks, indicating there might be a large concentration of oxygen defects in the sample. This method is both controllable and reproducible.