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Garden Design

Witch hazel for early spring flowers

Reed Pugh

Reed Pugh

February 27, 2013

Witch Hazel, or Hamamelis, is a genus of medium-sized shrubs that typically have a vase-like shape and a unique flower that comes outside of the typical season. Today, I have decided to write about them because my Witch Hazel is in full bloom. I first noticed in early February when it showed a little color through our huge snowstorm, but with the following warmer weather it burst out.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel2 copyThe plant in my garden is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’. Most of the plants in the trade are x intermedia hybrids, which are a cross between the Japanese and Chinese species.  These hybrids are popular for their prolific flowering and broad range of colors from yellow to orange to copper to red and many shades in between. They can be fragrant, but who’s really spending time outside smelling flowers in February. If you have a lot of space in the garden and have a number of plants, cutting some branches and bringing them in can be a wonderful, fragrant surprise for this time of year.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel4

The flowers appear in clusters and the yellow strap-like pieces are actually the petals. The petals come out of a dark red calyx, inside of which are the stamens. The yellow petals  extend out in this relatively warm weather and will shrink back in when we get a cold snap. The lack of real heat is what allows these to flower for such a long time. You’ll notice in the summer that flowers don’t last very long when it is really hot. See the picture below of a close-cropping of the calyx and petals.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel3I read an article a while ago where someone said that Witch Hazel would be an ordinary and forgotten plant if it flowered in June. What a ridiculous statement. It doesn’t flower in June, it flowers in February and will show color for two months or more, and when you have snow like we have now, it is a brilliant focal point in the garden.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel7This beautiful shrub is off the back of my garage and I look directly at it from my drafting table. I would like to say I placed it there for that exact reason, but my table was in a basement office when I planted it years ago. Like many things in the garden, success can not always be planned, sometimes it just happens.

In the suburban gardens that I live and work, with minimal pruning these shrubs can be kept to a manageable size with an elegant vertical shape. They have a nice big leaf with wavy edges and many of the hybrids show good fall color, but really they are best grown as a structural accent plant in smaller gardens. They have a nice layered look and can be lovely next to a terrace or deck. Of course it is critical to locate it where it can be enjoyed in flower during mid-winter months.

In larger, more natural gardens, they can be planted in groups and left to form their vertical branching. Witch Hazel can be effective as a natural screen or transition into woodland areas.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel1

They are basically understory plants and prefer some shade but will do well in sun provided they have moisture. They do not like it hot and dry. Any pruning should be done in early spring so as not to remove next seasons flower buds. They also tend to be suckering shrubs and will send shoots up from the roots. Be sure to prune these out if you want to keep the open layered look.

Reed Pugh Witch hazel6Growing up I remember a product in the house called Witch Hazel. I had no idea what it was used for, but apparently it is commonly used as an astringent and for a number of other ailments. It is distilled from our native Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. This plant is also available in the trade, since it is our native, but the major difference with this species is that it flowers October through December. It has the same beautiful flowers, but they appear when the leaves are still on the plant and the display is mostly hidden.

Spring is still far away, but at least I have flowers in my garden…

[Leave a comment on this or any GardenDrum blog post during March 2-9, 2013 to be in the draw to win a copy of Waterwise Gardening, co-written by Catherine Stewart and Sophie Thomson!]

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