Winter Blooming Witch Hazels: More than just Barney Fife’s after-shave.
“Hello Floyd, this is Barney Fife. I’m coming over and I’m ready for action! That’s right I want the works. Shave, haircut, Witch Hazel, O.D. Cologne, toilet water. If it smells, I want it.”
If you want some action in your garden in the dreary depths of winter, Witch Hazels are the shrub for you. We are not talking about their wonderful astringent after- shave qualities, which good old Barney Fife was so familiar with. We are talking flowers and fragrance.
As winter starts to lighten its grip, Witch Hazels (Hamamelis) are among the first shrubs to start blooming. February is often prime bloom time. However, there is variation due to weather patterns. This year my H. vernalis started blooming in late December and has since finished blooming. In other years I have seen the same species bloom into early March.
Although a few warm and sunny days in winter start the bloom process, the inevitable cold that will follow rarely damages the bloom. Recently, the flowers seemed undamaged after a few nights in the upper teens.
The genus Hamamelis consist of five species. In the winter landscape, three species concern us most. H. vernalis, H. japonica, and H. mollis. Most of the selections available to gardeners today are hybrids between japonica and mollis. These hybrids are referred to as Hamamelis x intermedia followed by the cultivar name.
Varying shades of yellow, orange and red are the dominant color range. While many of the yellow cultivars can be effective from a distant vantage point, this is not ideal for the more subtle earth tones. Since gardeners are often not out in the landscape in the winter, placing the plants in areas that receive winter foot traffic benefits the gardener the most. Near the driveway or parking areas or along the walk to the entrance of your house ensures maximum exposure to they’re beauty.
Beautiful bloom isn’t the only reason to grow Witch Hazel. Often the first indication of bloom is the fragrance. The sweet fragrance of some cultivars travels long distances in the garden. Not all cultivars are fragrant. Research before purchasing or time in the field using the olfactory sense will help you get the right plant.
Witch Hazels can reach fifteen to twenty feet in height. Most are either broadly vase-shaped or low, mounding and wide spreading. Full sun to partial shade is preferred. Although shade is tolerated, bloom will be greatly reduced.
Witch Hazels do suffer a few less than desirable traits. Some cultivars hold on to the previous years leaves and seed capsules until nearly the time new foliage emerges. This trait obscures blossoms and creates an untidy appearance. The picture directly above shows a good example of this trait. Wisley Supreme is the yellow cultivar on the left. Few leaves. Beautiful display. The plant on the right, James Wells, seems to have kept all its foliage from last year.
For an article written in more flowery prose and from the standpoint of one of the nations experts, Tim Brotzman, on the genus Hamamelis, check out this link. No one is better suited to write about the genus.
Admittedly, Witch Hazel varieties are not the easiest plants to locate. Ask your gardening friends if they are growing them. Check out the local arboretums.
Dawes Arboretum, east of Columbus Ohio, has one of the finest collections of the genus.
Just like any plant that brings color, form or fragrance into the winter and early spring garden, Witch Hazels are well worth the effort.
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