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Witch Hazel

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski

Witch Hazel – in Winter

I don’t think I have seasonal affective disorder but for sure, Winter is my least favorite season. One thing that really brightens my mood is being in the presence of flowering plants. Although many shrubs and trees showcase colorful stems or bark, berries, or evergreen leaves in winter, they don't compare to the emotional rush that's triggered by winter blooms. A serious consequence to blooming in winter is the ever present danger of losing the flowers to freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, their appearance and fragrance during the winter months is a chance worth taking.

Some of my favorites are the witch hazels (Hamamaelis spp.). These deciduous winter-flowering shrubs are highly regarded for their fall and winter attributes. Fall color ranges from shades of yellow to combinations of brilliant yellow, orange and red. Flowering time varies among the species and hybrids, but begins in the fall (Oct-Nov) with common witch hazel (H. virginiana), to mid-winter with the vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) and late winter and early spring for the Asian species and hybrids (H. mollis, H. japonica, and H. x intermedia).

The striking ornamental feature shared by witch hazels are the spiderlike flowers whose four, strap-like petals look like strands of confetti that appear to have exploded from the bud. The flowers vary in size from one-quarter to an inch in diameter and occur predominantly in shades of yellow with the natives, but some of the Asian species and hybrids soar off into the oranges and maroons.

The standard-bearers of garden witch hazels are the hybrids between the Chinese and Japanese species (H. x intermedia). They produce the showiest flowers and become multi-stemmed shrubs that reach 6 to 15 feet high. There are over 25 cultivars with some having fragrant flowers and sporting flowers that range in color from yellow, copper, or red. The fall color can be spectacular with splashes of yellows, oranges and reds. Flowering time varies among the cultivars, so early, mid-season and late-blooming cultivars can be selected to keep the landscape in bloom for months.