One of my favorite winter bloomers is witch hazel, a small shrub-like tree. The flowers themselves are only a few inches, but their unique shape and ability to cover dark, bare stems with flashes of color add excitement in winter gardens. The flowers are really clusters of four petals shaped like thin ribbons emanating from a dark, leathery base called a calyx. Depending on the cultivar, these one-inch to two-inch long ribbons are translucent yellow or mustard yellow, red/orange or brown/orange, or scarlet red or rust red. On warm winter days, the ribbons unfurl. As temperatures drop, the ribbons curl back as a protective mechanism against the cold.
Witch hazels are about 15 to 18 feet tall and wide, with wavy-edged, hazel-like leaves. In the fall, the leaves turn a striking yellow, sometimes with orange or red tinges, before dropping to reveal an open vase structure.
There are many Hamamelis species but the common ones are: Hamamelis japonica (Japanese witch hazel); H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel); H. vernalis (Ozark witch hazel); and H. virginiana (common or Virginia witch hazel). The first three are hardy to zone 4 or 5 while the last is hardy to zone 3. Common witch hazel is known for its use as an astringent in cosmetics. Hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between H. japonica and H. mollis – many cultivars have been bred from this to extend the flower color range as well as fall color of leaves.
Witch hazels like well-drained but evenly moist soil. They are forest understory plants, small enough for suburban properties but possibly requiring shade from the summer sun unless one can guarantee against drought. Usually they are not troubled by pests or diseases.
Witch hazels plants are easy to find at local nurseries in the spring but now is the time to view them in gardens in order to select your favorite flower color. In Alexandria, Virginia, Green Spring Gardens has more than 200 Hamamelis plants. Green Spring Gardens’ witch hazel collection became an official Plant Collections Network (PCN) collection in 2006. PCN, a part of the American Public Gardens Association, is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta that coordinate preservation of germplasm. Member gardens make the germplasm available for studies, evaluation, breeding, and research. While Green Spring Gardens has the most extensive collection in the Washington DC area, you also can see them in bloom in other public gardens such as Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, and the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington DC. Check out these perfect plants for the winter garden today so you can add few to your own garden this summer.
All photos are from Green Spring Gardens, courtesy of the Fairfax County Park Authority.