Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, is perhaps best known for its medicinal properties. But it’s also a star of the February garden. And right now in eastern North America, the shrub’s sweet, citrusy scent is drifting across many a landscape. If you’re looking for flowers in the dead of winter, witch hazel offers a wealth of opportunities.
ABOUT WITCH HAZEL
My love affair with witch hazel started early. In Delaware, where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of them on the corner of Winterthur Museum’s visitor pavilion. In late January, I’d watch in amazement as their swollen buds unveiled the first slivers of bright yellow and wine-colored flowers. And in February, when the shrubs reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a brilliant tapestry of late winter color.
Although I never learned the names of these stunning varieties, I later discovered that witch hazel has four main species, two of which are native to North America. The first, Hamamelis virginiana blooms in late fall and the second, Hamamelis vernalis, blooms in late winter.
The other two species, Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis mollis, are native to Asia. Both bloom in winter.
Recently, a cross between two species has produced a fifth variety; a hybrid called Hamamelis x intermedia. Celebrated for its bright fall color and oversized flowers, this variety blooms anywhere from late February to March.
FRAGRANT FLOWERS AND BRILLIANT FALL FOLIAGE
There’s so much to love about this winter-blooming plant. Some species are loose and vase-like, while others are rounded and compact. Most varieties grow to just 15 to 25 feet tall. And in the fall, all of them turn brilliant shades of red or yellow.
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 from bare branches in clusters of burnt orange, deep red and bright yellow. Typically lasting for up to a month, the flowers unfurl on warmer days and roll back up when the temperature drops below freezing.
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, 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. 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, this plant’s’ rich yellow flowers are larger than other species’. They also have less of a twist. Outstanding cultivars include Goldcrest, Crimson Gold and Superba.
WITCH HAZEL CARE
Witch hazels tolerate a range of light levels, but they flower best in full sun. That being said, I know from experience that they do just fine in dappled shade. The key is to plant them in 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 looks, witch hazel is widely known for its medicinal properties. Poultices made from its leaves and bark can be used topically to treat swelling and inflammation. And some say it does wonders for insect bites and poison ivy.
For more information about this versatile, winter-flowering shrub, check out Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Which Witch Hazel Should Be In Your Yard.”