“Embrace the weather” could be the motto of the tough, winter-ready witch hazels. These remarkable plants laugh in the face of winter, blooming in frigid temperatures and even under layers of snow.
At least one of the five species of witch hazel deserves a spot in your garden, if for no other reason than to offer a breath of hope during the grayest days of winter.
Why are they known as witch hazels? One theory on the name’s origin comes from the use of witch hazel branches as dowsing rods, used by dowsers or “water witches” to help locate water sources. Dowsers use their intuition, coupled with specialized tools such as dowsing rods, to “tune in” to the site and lead them to water. This tradition is thousands of years old; pictographs from the Tassili-n-Ajjer caves in southeast Libya, dating back 9000 years ago, depict a group of people watching a dowser with a forked branch.
Witch hazels aren’t the only branches used by dowsers (there are no witch hazels native to Libya); twigs from elm, willow and some fruit trees have also been traditionally used as dowsing rods.
Another possibility for the name comes from an unlikely plant ally, the Scotch elm (Ulmus glabra). This European elm is also known as the wych elm, ‘wych’ an Anglo-Saxon word meaning bending. It’s thought that early colonists saw a resemblance between the two plants in their branching patterns, and took to calling the plants ‘wych’ hazels, now transformed into witch hazels.
Despite the questions surrounding the origin of the name, there is little doubt as to the merits of the various witch hazels in the garden. No other plant offers flowers with such color and fragrance through the winter months. The clear yellow flowers of common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) begin to bloom in late autumn, although they are often masked under the plant’s leaves. As the leaves turn lemony-apricot and drop, the flowers are exposed; by mid-November the branches may be covered to the tips with masses of flowers. Strap-like petals unfold to reveal a spicy-sweet fragrance. Plants may hold their bloom for weeks, depending on the weather.
Common witch hazel is at home in the forest understory, where it adds light and interest in the middle layer of the forest. This small tree matures at 20 to 30 feet with an equal spread, so it should be given ample room to grow when planted in the landscape.
Vernal witch hazel, our other native species, matures at about 10 feet high and wide with a suckering habit. Native to the Ozarks, vernal witch hazel is cold hardy in our area. The leaves turn a brilliant yellow color in fall, but often mask the flowers. The brown leaves are held on the plants through winter giving the plant an untidy look.
The Victorian era saw the introduction of two Asian species, the Japanese and Chinese witch hazels (H. japonica and H. mollis). Japanese witch hazel forms a wide spreading shrub about 10 feet high and wide. Yellow flowers with long, straplike petals often compared to crepe paper are borne in winter, but have less fragrance than the Chinese species. Japanese witch hazel does offer brilliant fall color, with leaves turning shades of yellow, red and purple. Chinese witch hazel produces yellow and red flowers with a delightful spicy fragrance.
A cross between these two Asian species (H. x intermedia) was first described in 1945 from plants growing at Arnold Arboretum. Positive attributes of both species are carried through in the hybrid witch hazels, including good fall color, profuse flower production and good fragrance. Many hybrid cultivars are now available, so many that even the witch hazel experts have trouble differentiating them. A few of the best include:
‘Arnold Promise’ — Masses of bright yellow fragrant flowers bloom in mid- to late-winter. Reaches a mature size of 20 feet high and wide.
‘Aurora’ — Long flower petals are bright yellow with orange-red bases, giving a two-tone effect. Very fragrant in bloom, with good fall color.
‘Diane’ — This handsome shrub is smaller than ‘Arnold Promise,’ with copper-red flowers lacking some of the fragrance of other cultivars but with good fall color.
‘Jalena’ — Flowers in hues of red, yellow and orange create a copper glow. Fall color is orange-red.
‘Pallida’ — Bears sweet-scented, pale yellow flowers with a reddish-purple base. This cultivar is alternatively listed as a cultivar of H. mollis.
All witch hazels grow best in average soils with good drainage. For best flowering, they should be located in full sun, but many are tolerant of shady conditions. Be sure to locate witch hazels along a pathway or near an entrance where the colorful flowers and spicy fragrance can be appreciated in the cold days of winter.
Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.