(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 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
Native to both North America and Asia, witch hazel has 4 main species. In North America, the two native species are Hamamelis virginiana and Hamamelis vernalis. Hamamelis virginiana grows in the eastern part of the United States and blooms in late fall. And Hamamelis vernalis grows in the southern and central part of the country and blooms in late winter.
In Asia, the two native species are Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis 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 BRILLIANT FALL FOLIAGE
There’s so much to love about this winter-blooming plant. Most species grow to about 15 to 25 feet; the perfect size 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 yellow or red.
And when the brown fruits rupture in late summer or early fall, 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
But 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. Unfolding gradually over time, the petals 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. When the shrubs finally reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a brilliant tapestry of late winter color.
THE BEST WITCH HAZEL 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 cultivars are loosely branched and medium-sized. Growing to about 12 feet tall and wide, they 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
This species’ flowers are typically bright yellow, although some cultivars produce reddish ones. The shrub’s leaves turn yellow in the fall. Popular cultivars 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.
More delicate than the other species, hamamelis japonica can’t handle extremes in cold weather. As a result, the shrubs are less hardy than other cultivars. 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 hazels, 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.
CARING FOR WITCH HAZEL
Witch hazel needs full sun to flower well. That being said, it will do OK in dappled shade. The most important thing is to give the shrub well-drained, loamy, acidic soil. Most species need a chilling period of at least 2 months with temperatures below 45 degrees to ensure flowering.
In addition to its aesthetic properties, hamamelis extract 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.”