Knowing and appreciating witch hazel makes you a hard-core plant lover. This shrub is not super-showy, nor is it without flaws, but it’s tough enough to provide flowers on the very edges of the growing season, when you need them the most.
What is witchy about witch hazel? I’ve heard that witch hazel twigs are used as dowsing or “witching” rods to find water. Perhaps a more plausible theory is that the “witch” part comes from the Old English “wice,” meaning weak, supple, and/or flexible. This would refer to the branches, which are easily bent.
Here in Massachusetts the American native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a common understory tree. When you’re out in November, pay attention to the scrubby forested patches between the houses: you may see the witch hazel’s pale yellow, spidery flowers with their crumpled rectangular petals. Get close enough and you will enjoy their faint, sweet-spicy scent. It’s thrillingly bizarre to see these flowers uncurling when the rest of the forest is browned out and winter is closing in.
Another native witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, blooms in early spring, but I haven’t seen it around here. The spring-blooming varieties in my yard are not natives but cultivars descended from Asian stock. Chinese witch hazel or Hamamelis mollis – mollis being Latin for “soft” – has slightly downy leaves and is my most vigorous bloomer, producing large, golden-yellow flowers with a strong, sweet scent. It starts blooming in early February and persists until April, opening its flowers on sunny days when there is a hint of spring in the air. It is an absolute delight to have flowers at that time of year, weeks ahead of forsythia.
I also grow two Hamamelis x intermedia types, which are a cross between the Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis japonica. H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ was developed by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Arnold Promise’s flower is smaller, less showy and less fragrant than H. mollis but it has a more elegant, pastel-yellow color.
H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is a bit of a dud but I can’t help loving it anyway. The flowers are small, orange-brown, and not noticeable from any distance – but bring a blooming twig into the house where you can really see it well and there’s something appealing about the unusual color. Let’s say it would make a classy focal point in any February flower arrangement.
Here’s the real problem: the foliage. I cannot in all honesty advise anyone to grow witch hazel because of the problems I have had with the foliage. Although many cultivars are supposed to give good fall color, I have never experienced that personally. The large leaves are prone to mildew, so unless you keep on top of that with a fungicide, you are left with floppy, blackened leaves instead of fall gold. The curled leaf carcasses hang on the shrubs all winter, completely obscuring the delicate flowers, UNLESS…
UNLESS you go out in January, like a gardening fool, and snip them off! Yes, there I am, with my hands freezing, clipping every leaf off of these fairly large shrubs (and they’re attached so firmly that I can’t just pull them off; I have to use my snips). And without fail my neighbor Simone is out walking her dogs and I have to explain, embarrassed, that I am deleafing my witch hazel. Fortunately she laughs – she is a plant person too.
And on the next sunny day, when those thin sweet petals unfurl, I have a bright shot of yellow in my yard – the only color in the entire bleak, wintry landscape. I have a sign that spring is truly on its way.. And for me, the gift of that color is worth it.