There’s no denying that winter can be a drab time in the garden and that deciduous shrubs and trees can be rather dull at this time of year, but that’s no reason to write them off entirely, as so many gardeners seem wont to do.
Not only do deciduous shrubs and trees have interesting branch structures — a bonus often overlooked after their autumn colour — some of them flower in winter. Many of those that do, such as wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), have highly fragrant flowers but they’re not very showy.
Among the exceptions, however, are the witch hazels (Hamamelis spp.). Not only are their flowers often very spicily scented, they’re usually bright shades of yellow, orange and russet red. Sure, the spidery-petalled blooms aren’t that large, but appearing as they do on bare-stems, they really stand out.
The flowers also have an interesting habit that enables them to withstand the cold they must endure while flowering in winter: the flowers open or close in relation to the temperature. So on cold cloudy days and at night they remain closed, but as soon as the weather warms they open and are ready for business again.
Like most of the common deciduous genera, Hamamelis is northern hemisphere-based. There are five species and they are found in the temperate parts of Europe, East Asia and North America. Despite the common name, the genus is not related to the edible hazel nuts, but is in a separate family: the Hamamelidaceae. The name witch hazel comes from early American settlers who saw a resemblance to European hazel and who used the twigs as water divining rods, giving rise to an earlier common name — water witch.
The name hamamelis means “together with fruit” and refers to the plants’ habit of carrying leaf buds, flowers and seed pods of the previous year all at the same time; something believed to be unique among North American trees.
Four species are most often seen in gardens: H. japonica from Japan, H. mollis from western and central China, andH. vernalis and H. virginiana from the southern and central United States. Extracts of the bark and leaves ofHamamelis virginiana are used in cosmetics and eye drops. European settlers acquired their knowledge of witch hazel astringents from Native Americans who had used them for many years, mainly for their styptic properties.
Most garden plants, however, are not species but hybrids of the group classified as H. × intermedia. Their parentage is H. japonica × H. mollis and they are generally smaller than the species but with larger and more colourful flowers.
Among the best known and most commonly available H. × intermedia hybrids are: ‘Arnold Promise’, dense clusters of bright yellow flowers; ‘Diane’, orange-yellow darkening to russet red; ‘Jelena’, orange and gold darkening to bronze red; ‘Primavera’; soft primrose yellow; and ‘Ruby Glow’, bright copper red flowers and reliable autumn foliage colour.
There are also several selected forms of H. mollis, but they don’t show such a variation in colour, being mainly yellow shades. Those you’ll most likely see are ‘Goldcrest’, which has bright yellow flowers with a maroon basal blotch, and ‘Pallida’, which has soft sulphur yellow flowers.
In areas with distinct seasons, witch hazels often develop attractive orange and red autumn foliage tones. In mild climates the seasons are often not differentiated sharply enough for these colours to be seen at their best.
Witch hazels are not difficult to grow in a suitable climate. They are very hardy to frost and actually require some winter cold to be at their best. In mild northern areas they may not get the necessary winter chilling to produce good flowering wood and to ensure that the foliage drops completely to reveal the flowers. However, provided your garden sees the occasional light frost, the climatic requirements aren’t too much of a problem.
Witch hazels are otherwise undemanding. Simply give them well-drained soil, an occasional watering in summer and a position in sun or morning shade. If any pruning is required, and it’s rare that anything more than a light trim is necessary, then do it immediately after flowering.
Provided they have been container-grown, witch hazels can be planted out at any time. Open-ground-raised plants should be planted in winter, which is also when any transplanting should be done. Witch hazels of almost any size can be successfully transplanted when dormant.
Several other member of the Hamamelidaceae family are also valuable additions to the range of winter flowering plants. My favourite is Sycopsis sinensis, a near-evergreen tree from the Himalayas, China and, surprisingly, Malaysia. Its flowers are unscented and relatively small but are beautiful shades of cream, yellow and orange. They’re well worth close inspection. You might also consider the Persian ironbark (Parrotia persica), which, like the witch hazels, is deciduous and flowers when it has no leaves. It is a native of Northern Iran, and while its unscented red flowers are interesting, its most attractive features are its multi-coloured flaking bark and vivid autumn foliage.
Corylopsis, Fothergilla and Loropetalum are other fairly common genera that belong to the witch hazel family.