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Plant Profile: Witch Hazels, Shrubs of February Warmth And March Scent

Ask around at garden centers this Spring for Witch Hazels. See them in flower at Planting Fields and Clark Garden this week and next.

There's a good reason we rarely see Witch Hazels (Hamamelis) planted around our towns and gardens. Though their long-lasting frostproof primrose-yellow or coppery-orange or bronzy-red flowers are beacons in the drab end-of-winter landscape, few casual gardeners are apt to notice any – unless they pay a visit to the botanical gardens or the Planting Fields Arboretum. This is because their buds do open as soon as there is a succession of three or four days of temperatures in the 40s. In other words, right around late February/early March, which is a very unlikely time for gardeners to visit garden centers. In fact, even if they did, the yards would be empty because nurseries do not begin to bring in new trees and shrubs until late March, by which time the petals of witch-hazels have dropped. If you have planted one in your garden then a prowl around it this week will be rewarded.

The first of April of course brings the ubiquity of forsythia. Indestructible to begin with, these colonize large areas in sun or shade when the tips of their long arching stems reach the ground and there root in.Their yellow flowers do resemble in color a few witch-hazel cultivars, but never ever do forsythia and witch-hazel flower the same week. Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' is forsythian yellow. Hicks and  Martin Viette and even your local garden center like North Shore or Bayles do often have witch-hazels (though not when in flower!) and this is the one they are most likely to have in the yard. Introduced by the Arnold Arboretum in 1928, it is a proven first-rate plant and one I have grown and known for more than 20 years. Its habit is upright and grows to 15 feet. Not only is it unequaled as a cheerfully bright proclamation of longer day-lengths and good-riddance to Old Man Winter, but you can't miss its bewitching scent, especially when the flowers are coaxed by unseasonably warm sunshine. I could never put my finger on it, but when I asked my mother yesterday if she could she said it's like inhaling Alpine air immediately after a late spring rain! It's so fresh, it's unpolluted ozone!

Hybrids between the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and Japanese H. japonica have been raised (primarily at Kalmthout Arboretum in Belgium) but they are usually grafted onto rootstock of the American H. virginiana, whence the common name Witch Hazel. "The leaves resemble those of Hazel Nut, and for this reason twigs were used for water divining by early settlers, and earned the plants the name Witch Hazel, on account of their supposed magic properties" wrote Graham Stuart Thomas.  Native Americans used the native witch-hazel for many remedies and today we see bottles of "witch hazel" in apothecaries because it is an old-fashioned astringent – all species have high tannin content.

Magical, pharmaceutical, or merely ornamental, I have found that they hold up well through heat and drought and usually (like their relations Fothergilla and Persian ironwood) remind you of their exhaustion with a blaze of orange and red fall color, some cultivars more than others.  And not all of them are blessed with the famous scent.  Sulphur-yellow H. mollis 'Pallida' is but orangey and reddish cultivars like 'Jelena' and 'Diane' are less so. After many years knowing only the yellow "Arnold Promise," these orange-red varieties are visually exciting.

They should be planted in open space, certainly not in too much shade, although they perform well as understory shrubs beneath old tress that have been limbed up.  It would be best if they were situated where their flowers can be viewed with an evergreen background, the denser and darker the better for yellow ones:  yew or holly.  Maybe the dark red-tinted evergreen azaleas for 'Jelena' and blue spruce for redder  'Diane.' And try to find a place where it can be seen from indoors, or at least where you'll pass it twice a day coming and going.  Witch-hazels don't necessarily comport well in mixed borders, because of their broadly spreading branches.  Better in the shrub border or let it be by itself in lawn; or underplant 'Arnold Promise' with a carpet of naturalizing Crocus tomasinianus (and mulch) and 'Jelena' or 'Diane' with snowdrops!  Better yet, if you have the soil for it, underplant the yellows with pink heath (Erica carnea) and the reddish colors with the white form (E. c. 'Springwood White'). 

Now that's gardening!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

willie April 05, 2013 at 11:20 AM
thanks , I always wondered what the yellow not forsythia shrubs were! I am going to plant one that I can see from my sliding glass doors!
Kyrnan Harvey April 06, 2013 at 12:49 PM
Happy to share that with you, willie, thanks for comment!

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