Witch Hazels are in prime form right now and are, by far, my favourite winter-flowering shrubs. Just one glimpse of an ‘Arnold’s Promise’ in full bloom on a dull winter’s day gives one a sense of hope, and the lingering sweet fragrance embeds that aspiration into our psyche. So, I thought today we would take a deep dive into this niche plant group.
There are actually only five species of Hamamelis, including
1. H. vernalis (North America),
2. H.ovalis (North America),
3. H.virginiana (North America),
4. H. mollis (China), and
5. H. japonica (Japan).
Another prominent group are known as Hamamelis x intermedia, which are actually H. japonica and H. mollis crosses of garden origin – we will delve into these in detail a little later.
The common name has a rather interesting history, deriving from the old Anglo-Saxon word wych or ‘bendable’, as Y-shaped sticks were often used for dowsing, or locating underground water for wells. Hazel refers to the plant’s leaves resembling Corylus or Hazelnut foliage. Witch Hazel the medicine is usually derived from distilled leaves and bark of Hamamelis virginiana — this astringent is used as a skin topical for inflammation, minor cuts, and insect bites.
I learned the hard way about the rather explosive nature of seed dispersal common to Witch Hazels. As a young gardener studying botany, I would often collect seedpods, leaving them on our bookcase headboard to cure before putting them in a jar. One late night they started blowing open and the sound of the seeds pinging against our bedroom window made both my wife and I believe that someone was shooting bullets at our Surrey apartment. Needless to say, she banned all botanicals from the bedroom from that time forth.
Awesome Autumn Colour
Another lesser know fact about Witch Hazels is that they have stunning autumn colour, particularly the Hamamelis x intermedia group. The hues range from golden-yellows, burnt orange, and fiery reds, with leaves often being two-toned. The growth habit is usually upright and arching, with mature height ranging from 8-15’ tall, although this can be finessed with a little pruning, which should be done after flowering. Use a light hand here to remove dead or crossing branches, as hard pruning usually results in rampant regrowth which can be hard to control. Witch Hazel branches make excellent cut stems for floral arrangements, so you could always do a little pruning while they’re in bloom in order to enjoy the flower’s sweet fragrance inside the house. Most Hamamelis are grafted onto H. virginiana or H. vernalis rootstock, so you will have to keep an eye out for suckers and remove these as soon as they appear.
Witch Hazel Needs
Witch Hazels prefer part- to full-sun (better autumn colour) exposures, although they will tolerate open shade. They need an organic, well-drained soil and aren’t fussy about pH. They are not particularly heavy feeders, so use bone meal when planting new specimens and if necessary, use a granular fertilizer in early spring (before leaf bud break) for established specimens. When designing gardens, I like to mass plant immediately below Witch Hazels using low-growing evergreen shrubs such as Sarcococca humilis (open shade) and Lonicera ‘Thunderbolt’ (part sun) or perennials like Hellebores and Epimedium x rubrum.
Witch Hazel Varieties
While there are close to 100 cultivars of Hamamelis to date, these are getting harder to find given recent plant shortages. So, keep in mind that my overview includes varieties that I have encountered over my forty years as a professional gardener.
This species was rediscovered in 2004 (referred to as H. macrophylla back in 1812) and is only found in one county on the lower Mississippi River. It features spectacular flower colour ranging from rose-pink, scarlet, maroon to wine-red and is very shallow rooted. The leaves are 2-3 times larger than most Witch Hazels and it is quite diminutive, averaging only 1-2’ tall with older specimens maxing out at 4-8’. I have yet to see this species offered locally. USDA zone 6.
This Witch Hazel is not often offered as an ornamental as it is quite coarse growing and begins blooming in the fall, often when the leaves are still on the plant. That said, the pale-yellow flowers are sweetly fragrant and cultivars such as ‘Harvest Moon’ (pictured) continue blooming after leaf drop. USDA zone 3.
Although rather rare in cultivation, over the years I have seen the cultivars ‘Sulphurea’ (pale yellow) and ‘Zuccariniana’ (lemon yellow) occasionally. USDA zone 5.
This is, in my opinion, the most sweetly fragrant of the Witch Hazels, and the pure yellow flowers absolutely glow on the dull winter days. The species can be found occasionally, while ‘Wisley Supreme’ (large bright yellow winter blooms) and ‘Pallida’ (abundant pale-yellow flowers) are the most common varieties, although the latter tends to hold its dormant leaves through winter. USDA zone 5.
A small but interesting species group that includes the rare ‘Lombart’s Weeping’ (small reddish-orange blooms) which forms a dense mop of a bush. ‘Rochester’ is a vernalis x mollis hybrid with crinkled reddish-orange flowers, while the real standout is the rare ‘Amethyst’. This seedling-find bears very unusual dusky-purple blooms with spicy fragrance. USDA zone 4.
H. x intermedia
A comprehensive hybrid group that includes the most common Witch Hazel cultivars such as ‘Arnold’s Promise’ (prolific bright yellow flowers), ‘Jelena’ (coppery-orange blooms) and ‘Diane’ (deep red blossoms). Other notable varieties include ‘Primavera’ (vibrant yellow), ‘Aphrodite’ (deep orange) and ‘Barmstedt Gold’ (golden-yellow). USDA zone 5.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Witch Hazels is to come down to the nursery to see and smell them for yourself. We currently have five varieties in stock, including the very hard-to-find ‘Amethyst’.