(Updated February 2019)
Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, is well known for its therapeutic properties. But, it’s also a star of the late winter garden. And right now in eastern North America, the shrub’s sweet citrusy-like scent is permeating many a landscape. To my mind, there’s nothing quite like the arrival of witch hazel’s fragrant, shaggy flowers to signal spring is finally on its way.
ABOUT WITCH HAZEL
Native to both North America and Asia, witch hazel has four main species. In North America, the two native species are Common witch hazel (H. virginiana) and Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis). Common witch hazel grows in the eastern part of the United States and blooms in late fall. Ozark witch hazel grows in the southern and central part of the country and blooms in the late winter.
In Asia, the two native species are Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis). Both are winter-blooming. Recently, a cross between the two species has produced the hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia. More manageable in size, it blooms anywhere from late February to March.
FRAGRANT FLOWERS AND BEAUTIFUL FALL FOLIAGE
There’s so much to love about this winter-blooming plant. Most species grow to about 15 to 25 feet; a perfect height for a garden corner. Some varieties have a loose, vase-like form while others are more rounded and compact. In the fall, the shrubs’ smooth, oval leaves turn brilliant shades of red or yellow.
And when the brown fruits rupture, they fling a single glossy black seed as far as 30 feet into the distance.
Witch hazel seed pods
Witch hazel leaves have brilliant fall color
Above all, the ‘wow factor’ for me lies in witch hazel’s unusual, spidery flowers. Ribbon-like in appearance, the blooms are produced on bare branches in clusters of bright yellow, deep red or occasionally burnt orange. The petals unfold gradually over time and can last for up to a month.
In Delaware where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of witch hazels flanking a corner of the glass pavilion at Winterthur Gardens. Beginning in late February, their buds would start to swell, revealing slivers of the first dazzling flowers. There was a bright yellow variety and a wine-colored one. Finally when the shrubs reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a rich tapestry of late winter color.
THE BEST CULTIVARS FOR YOUR GARDEN
Here’s a rundown of the main species and some of their hybrids and cultivars.
Hamamelis x intermedia cultivars are loosely branched and medium-sized. They grow to about 12 feet tall and wide and have oval leaves that turn yellow in the fall. Their twisted yellow, red or orange flowers appear on bare stems from late February to March ahead of spring foliage. Popular varieties include: Arnold’s Promise, Diane, Jelena, and Pallida.
Hamamelis x intermedia
Common Witch Hazel (H. virginiana) flowers are typically bright yellow, although some cultivars have reddish ones. The shrub’s leaves turn yellow in the fall. Popular cultivars include Little Suzie and Harvest Moon.
Ozark Witch Hazel (H. vernalis) is intensely fragrant with crooked stems and an open crown. Flowers range in color from yellow to dark red and the petals roll up on cold days. Most noteworthy cultivars include Autumn Embers, Lombart’s Weeping and Sandra.
Japanese Witch Hazel (H. japonica) cultivars can’t handle extremes in cold weather. As a result, they are less hardy than other cultivars. In its native Japan, the shrub’s pale yellow, red and purple flowers are prized in tea ceremonies.
Chinese Witch Hazel (H. mollis) is considered the most fragrant of all the witch hazels. Its rich yellow flowers with elongated petals are larger than those of other species and have less of a twist. Outstanding cultivars include Goldcrest, Crimson Gold and Superba.
CARING FOR WITCH HAZEL
In order to flower well, witch hazels need full sun. They will do OK in dappled shade. The shrubs prefer well-drained, loamy, acidic soil. Most species need a chilling period of at least 2 months with temperatures below 45 degrees to ensure flowering. Most importantly, prune after the blooms but before summer to allow next year’s buds to set.
Witch hazel extract can be used externally to treat swelling and inflammation. It also helps treat insect bites and poison ivy. Witch hazel’s therapeutic properties gained widespread acceptance in the United States in 1866. This followed the first commercial introduction of an astringent made from its bark and leaves by Thomas Newton Dickinson.
For more information about witch hazel and a comparison of 36 cultivars of the four main Hamamelis species, check out Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Which Witch Hazel Should Be In Your Yard.”