What IS that plant? That’s not an uncommon reaction the first time one encounters a witch hazel in the winter garden. Not many winter-blooming shrubs exist in the mid-Atlantic area. A few come to mind, such as sweetbox, wintersweet, winter daphne, and winter jasmine, but witch hazel is perhaps the best known and appreciated in the winter landscape for its bright, cheerful, spidery-looking blossoms and sweet fragrance.
Witch hazels are large multi-stemmed shrubs or small trees. Besides blooming in the dead of winter when the rest of the garden is asleep, witch hazel provides richly hued yellow, orange or red foliage in autumn, depending on the cultivar. Although it is a slow growing plant, it is worth the wait when it bursts into bloom. The blossoms appear in tight clusters along the branches. Each blossom consists of four ribbon-like petals which unfurl and flutter in the winter air on warm days but curl up tightly at night when temperatures drop.
Pests rarely bother this plant, deer and groundhogs generally leave it alone, and it is easy to grow. With so much going for it, this is a plant that deserves greater attention and consideration for use in the ornamental landscape. Be warned, however, that some witch hazels tend to sucker, which can be a problem if you want to control the overall size of the plant or if you’re growing a hybrid that is grafted onto native rootstock. Periodic pruning may be required to remove the suckers but, other than this one issue, the plant requires very little maintenance.
Linnaeus named this plant Hamamelis in 1753 when he observed leaves, flowers, and prior year’s fruit appearing all at once on a single native witch hazel. He chose a combination of “hama” (at the same time) and “melon” (apple or fruit) for its name.Three native and two Asian species make up the Hamamelis genus: H. virginiana, H. vernalis, H. ovalis, H. mollis and H. japonica.
NATIVE WITCH HAZELS
Common witch hazel, or H. virginiana, is native to the entire eastern half of the United States and Canada, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture plants database (see http://plants.usda.gov). Unlike the other four species of witch hazel, which bloom in the winter or early spring, H. virginiana blooms in autumn at the same time the leaves are turning. As a result, the yellow blossoms tend to compete with the yellow foliage for attention.
Hardy in USDA Zones 3-8, H. virginiana can grow quite large (15 to 20 feet or more tall and wide). It is well suited to naturalized settings, such as along streams or at the edge of deciduous woods but it can also be incorporated into a mixed garden border provided there’s room for it. The Albemarle County Recommended Native Plants list (see www.albemarle.org/nativePlants) indicates that this native shrub is an excellent choice for rain gardens and swales as well as for bioretention basins (which are used to slow and treat storm water runoff). This native shrub performs well in partial shade and is tolerant of full sun or full shade but flowers best in full sun. It prefers moderate moisture but will tolerate moderately dry conditions or high moisture sites. It prefers well-drained, loamy, acidic soil but it does tolerate clay soil. And in case you’re wondering, the leaves and bark of this American native are the source of the Witch Hazel astringent sold commercially and used medicinally.
Ozark witch hazel, or H. vernalis, is native to the Ozark Mountain areas of Missouri and Arkansas. It is a medium size shrub, between 6 and 10 feet tall, with a rounded form and showy yellow autumn foliage. This species has smaller flowers, which minimizes their impact in the garden, but the blossoms are intensely fragrant.
A third but minor native species, big-leaf witch hazel, or H. ovalis, was discovered in a single county in Mississippi in 2003 and is not currently known to be growing elsewhere. The interesting thing about this species of witch hazel is that the flowers appear in various shades of red, whereas H. virginiana and H. vernalis both have yellow blossoms.
ASIAN WITCH HAZELS
Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis) has a large, rounded form and is hardy in zones 5 to 8. The blooms, which are brightly colored and fragrant, appear in February or March and last several weeks. This Chinese native possesses a powerful perfume which makes it appealing to many people.
The Japanese variety (H. japonica) has an upright, open form that typically grows from 10 to 15 feet tall and wide with a rounded, spreading shape. Like the Chinese form, this variety is hardy in zones 5 to 8 and produces fragrant yellow blooms in February or March.
HYBRID WITCH HAZELS
Here’s where things get interesting. The vast majority of witch hazels sold commercially in this country are hybrids, which fall under the H. x intermedia category. These hybrids are the result of a cross between the two Asian species: Chinese witch hazel and Japanese witch hazel. The marriage of these two species has created some very interesting colors and has significantly broadened the appeal of witch hazels as garden-worthy shrubs.
One of the better hybrid witch hazels is ‘Arnold Promise,’ an up-right, vase-shaped cultivar with ascending branches and a spreading habit. It blooms later in spring than other witch hazel cultivars and is larger than either of its parents, which is generally true of all the intermedia hybrids. It was introduced by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and received a Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain Award of Garden Merit in 1993. It bears bright yellow flowers in late winter to early spring. In autumn, its foliage turns yellow to yellow-orange and is quite showy in the landscape.
While many of the H. x intermedia hybrids are available in various shades of yellow, which is the color typical of the species, intermedia hybrids also appear in orange, red, pink and even purple. ‘Jelena,’ for example, has coppery red flowers and a broad vase shape. Its orange-red fall foliage is spectacular in the ornamental garden. ‘Diane’ is a red flowering form that is not as fragrant as some of the yellow varieties. The University of Connecticut rates ‘Diane’ as “perhaps the finest red-flowering form” of witch hazel available. In late winter, the showy coppery red flowers are striking against a background of snow. The autumn foliage is a rich yellow-orange.
An informal check of local plant nurseries in and around Albemarle county indicates that you’re most likely to find specimens of H. virginiana or H. x intermedia among their inventories of witch hazels. Of the many hybrids available, ‘Jelena,’ ‘Diana,’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ are the easiest to find in addition to the native species. If you’re interested in growing a witch hazel but want more information about them, check out the Chicago Botanic Garden’s website (http://www.chicagobotanic.org) to learn more about their six-year witch hazel trials as they compare 36 different cultivars from the four major Hamamelis species.
The A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, published by the American Horticultural Society, co-editors Christopher Brickell and H. Marc Cathey, 2004 Revised Edition.
Bales, Suzy, The Garden in Winter, 2007.
Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, 2003.
Viette, Andre and Mark, Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Guide, 2003.