Intriguing Witch Hazel

Sunday, February 28th, 2010 by Jenny Watts
    • Plant strawberries now for delicious strawberry shortcake this summer.
    • Roses should be pruned if you haven’t done so already. Remove all old leaves on and around the bushes and spray with Neem oil to prevent early pest and disease problems.
    • Blueberries make delicious fruit on attractive plants that you can use in the orchard or the landscape. Choose varieties now.
    • Bare root fruit trees are now available. Choose one tree or a whole orchard and get them planted while the weather is good for digging.

Winter-blooming Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is a must-have shrub for fragrance and color in the winter garden. At a time when few plants are blooming, witch hazel adds sparkle to the landscape with its unusual, spidery flowers.

This North American native is very hardy, and can be grown as a single or multi-stemmed shrub. It is vase-shaped, growing 8 to 10 feet tall and spreading about 8 feet wide.

New branches are slightly fuzzy and brown, turning silver-grey as they age. Coppery new growth in spring and attractive gold fall color rounds out this shrub’s seasonal interest.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, grow in full sun or partial shade, and, although they can be grown in all kinds of soil, they prefer moist, well-drained conditions. Little pruning is required except to tidy their shape by removing unruly branches during flowering.

The name witch hazel probably originated from the early settlers’ practice of using the plant’s forked branches for water divining and to make brooms. Hazel refers to the similarities between witch hazel and the true hazelnut trees.

Several named varieties are best known in nurseries. ‘Arnold Promise’ has clear yellow, fragrant flowers with petals that look like tiny party streamers. ‘Diane’ is one of the most brilliant varieties with bright red flowers. ‘Jelena’ has coppery-orange flowers and brilliant red fall color. They bloom from late February to March.

Witch hazel can be planted in a mixed shrub border or used for height in the back of a perennial border. It is great as a transitional plant between tended gardens and wilder natural areas. While this plant is not deer resistant, it has evolved along side deer and browsing won’t harm the plant, but can actually create a fuller shrub. Young plants may need to be protected.

Consider planting witch hazel where you can enjoy the fragrance mid-winter, such as in an entry garden or near a path or patio. Plant it with hazelnut, blueberry, huckleberry and hellebores for interest throughout the winter.

Witch hazel extract, taken from the leaves, twigs and bark, is used medicinally. It has been used for centuries to treat skin ailments. It is still a common ingredient in soaps, face washes and shampoos.

Check out this unusual, low-maintenance shrub now, when you can see their unique flowers.