Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, may be best 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 scent is drifting across many a landscape. For me, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of witch hazel’s fragrant, shaggy flowers to signal spring is finally on its way.
ABOUT WITCH HAZEL
In Delaware where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of Hamamelis flanking a corner of Winterthur Museum’s visitor’s pavilion. Beginning in late February, their buds would begin to swell, revealing slivers of the first dazzling flowers. There was a bright yellow variety and a wine-colored one. And when the shrubs finally reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a brilliant tapestry of late winter color.
Although I never discovered the names of these stunning varieties, I later learned that witch hazel is composed of four main species. Moreover, North America is home to two of them: Hamamelis virginiana and Hamamelis vernalis. H. virginiana blooms in late fall and H. vernalis blooms in late winter.
The other two species hail from Asia. They are Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis mollis. Both bloom in the winter.
Recently, a cross between two species has produced the hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia. Known for their bright fall color and large flowers, these shrubs are slightly smaller in size and bloom anywhere from late February to March.
FRAGRANT FLOWERS AND BRILLIANT FALL FOLIAGE
There’s so much to love about this winter-blooming plant. Most species grow to about 15 to 25 feet tall; the perfect size for a garden corner. Some varieties have a loose, vase-like form while others are rounded and compact. And in the fall, the shrubs’ smooth, oval leaves turn brilliant shades of red or yellow.
What’s more, when the brown fruits rupture in late summer or early fall, they can fling a single black seed as far as 30 feet into the distance!
Most varieties produce brilliant fall color
But at the end of the day, the ‘wow factor’ for me lies in witch hazel’s unusual, spidery flowers. Ribbon-like in appearance, they hang on bare branches in clusters of burnt orange, deep red and bright yellow. The petals unfurl on warmer days and roll back up when the temperature drops below freezing. Flowers often last for up to a month.
THE BEST VARIETIES FOR YOUR GARDEN
Ready to give witch hazel a try? Here’s a rundown of the four main species and some of their hybrids and cultivars.
Hamamelis x intermedia
These lovely witch hazel varieties are loosely branched and medium-sized. Growing to about 12 feet tall and wide, they have oval leaves that turn yellow in the fall. From late February to March, twisted yellow, red or orange flowers appear on bare stems ahead of spring foliage. Popular cultivars include: Arnold’s Promise, Diane, Jelena, and Pallida.
H. x intermedia
This variety produces flowers that are typically bright yellow, although some cultivars produce reddish ones. The shrub’s leaves turn yellow in the fall. Popular varieties include Little Suzie and Harvest Moon.
Intensely fragrant with crooked stems and an open crown, this shrub’s flowers range in color from yellow to dark red. The petals roll up on cold days. Most noteworthy cultivars include Autumn Embers, Lombart’s Weeping and Sandra.
Less hardy than the other witch hazel varieties, Hamamelis japonica can’t handle extremes in cold weather. In its native Japan, the shrub’s pale yellow, red and purple flowers are prized in tea ceremonies.
Considered the most fragrant of all the witch hazel varieties, Hamamelis mollis‘ 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.
WITCH HAZEL CARE
Although witch hazels tolerate a range of light levels, they flower best in full sun. That being said, they do just fine in dappled shade. The most important thing is to give them well-drained, loamy, acidic soil. Most species also need a chilling period of at least two months with temperatures below 45 degrees to ensure flowering.
In addition to its good aesthetics, Hamamelis can be used externally to treat swelling and inflammation. Some say 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 this versatile, winter-flowering shrub, check out Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Which Witch Hazel Should Be In Your Yard.”