Witch-hazels


Witch-hazels (the genus Hamamelis) may be my favorite flowering deciduous woody ornamental. I was tempted to say shrub, but witch-hazels defy the classical definition of shrub, i.e., non-vining multiple stemmed woody plants typically < 20 feet tall. One may occasionally discover a specimen of the native H. virginiana exceeding that height, but most witch-hazels rarely top 10 feet. Moreover, witch-hazels are almost always have a short single stem, thus more like a small tree -- an intermediate category, along with many oriental maples. Witch-hazel bark is grey and smooth and their leaves, that remind me of green crinkled potato chips, have good to superior vibrant fall color. The flowers of many are outstandingly fragrant, yet witch-hazels are surprisingly underutilized given they are spectacular plants and easy to grow (preferring well-drained rich soil). But if asked to name their most astounding attribute, those in the know would likely say striking prolonged cold weather blooming. Curiously, if the temps plunge when blooming the flowers will respond by shrink-contorting (thermotropic response) and become less fragrant, but quickly recover once the temps rise sufficiently, especially when sunny. And here is an attribute you will not find on a label -- unlike some plants, witch-hazels have a pleasing refined appearance/form when leafless.


There are 5 - 7 species of witch-hazel, of which three are native to eastern North America -- the recently discovered running witch-hazel (H. ovalis), perhaps the mysterious big leaf witch-hazel (H. macrophylla) first report 200 years earlier; Ozark witch-hazel (H. vernalis) which, as the species name implies, flowers in spring; and the common or American witch-hazel (H. virginiana) which flowers in autumn to early winter. The petals of all witch-hazels are linear giving the flowers a spider like appearance, with color ranging from yellow (rich to pale), to orange, to red, and occasionally pink to almost purple. Moreover, the flowers are produced in abundance. A single older specimen might have 10,000 flowers!! in axillary clusters all along the stems except near the end of the branches. The flowers of some are very fragrant (usually a delightful sweet), with the blooming period lasting a month or more! While the native species are nice, they have trouble competing with the Asians which have a greater variety of growth forms (some more of a flattened V-shape) as well as much larger and usually more fragrant flowers. The two oriental species are Japanese witch-hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch-hazel (H. mollis), and you're in for a surprise if you happen not to know about the awesome suite of hybrids (H. x intermedia) -- various crosses between the two oriental species, that includes some of the very best woody tree-shrubs. Many of the > 200 cultivars are difficult to obtain, and a substantial number of the options are attributable to Chris Lane (England) or Tim Brotzman (east of Cleveland). These two plantsmen are as good as it gets when it comes to witch-hazels. You can find a captivating talk by both online. Treat yourself! Alas, Tim's recording has a recurring audio glitch.


The reason(s) witch-hazels are not as popular is because (1) they flower when the public isn't thinking about gardening, (2) the flowering occurs when most garden centers are either closed or not being visited, and (3) many people simply are poor judges. Adding to this, frequently the plants are not in inventory. Every plant species has issues. The four main problems with witch-hazels are (1) some subspecies and cultivar may retain their spent leaves (i.e., marcescence) which serves to obscure the blooming, (2) some are susceptible to anthracnose and powdery mildew (although, with respect to the latter, not nearly so much as lilacs), (3) depending on the parentage and cultivation, occasional suckering, and (4) since the plants are mostly grafted, they sometimes sprout from the rootstock -- almost always H. virginiana which can take over if allowed because it may be more vigorous than the scion. If left intact this sprouting produces a bizarre, grafted specimen with two flowering periods -- featuring different flowers on the same plant. Trippy, especially because one would normally think the rootstock would not be impressive when compared to the desired upper plant. Welcome to witch-hazel. As regards fragrance, the closer to red the flowers the less likely they are to be fragrant, but some of the yellow flowered cultivars, the most common color, can pervasively scent the landscape presenting a surreal winter to spring experience. An OH MY happening! So, which witch-hazel? Cultivars you should consider include (1) arguably the best two forms of the common witch-hazel ('Gold Harvest' and 'Winter Champagne' (the latter probably a H. vernalis hybrid -- my specimen flowers at Xmas), although they may be hard to obtain, and (2) the following (more common) forms of the Chinese or its intermediate hybrids ('Arnold Promise', 'Diane', 'Jelena', 'Pallida', and 'Wisley Supreme' -- see pic, taken March 10, 2021). 'Diane' and 'Jelena' lack fragrance but are still amazing!


Finally, let's address the spelling. You will see witch hazel written as two words, and that is fine -- I did so for years. Michael Dirr said that the word hazel should not be separate since they are not true hazels (Corylus), thus written as "witchhazels". Same rationale for crapemyrtle (i.e., not being a true myrtle, Myrtaceae). Makes sense, but both merged and hyphenated are accepted. Your choice, but the hyphenated form looks better to my eye -- less confusing and addresses the relationship issue. Like all words, it/they are written or spoken contrivances used to convey meaning -- for communication. Consistency is key, but the communication does not work if we refuse to listen or ignore what we hear. There is a lot of that going around in case you have not noticed, which means you have probably been off planet. FYI -- if you are considering another trip, and wouldn't mind an older companion, I might soon be interested :)

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