The Yakima Area Arboretum’s “The Weekly Leaf” newsletter arrived at the same time as mid-January’s snow and ice, bearing the unlikely headline, “Which Witch-Hazels are Blooming?” Flowers blooming in the dead of winter? I grabbed a camera and my husband, and off we went to see if it was true.
We found a small grove of witch hazels northwest of the Arboretum’s Japanese Garden. Two were in glorious bloom, evermore stunning against the snow. Some smaller specimens, planted near the Jewett Center, weren’t flowering yet. While these charming shrubs/small trees are hardy down to at least Zone 5, maintenance-free and ignored by most pests, they had me at “blooming in winter.”
In 1753, botanist Linnaeus saw leaves, flowers and last year’s fruit all at once on a single native witch hazel. He named it Hamamelis, since “hama” (at the same time) and “melon” (apple or fruit) describe the specimen perfectly.
Those of us intimidated by Latin prefer the common name with an origin that has nothing to do with witchcraft. Native Americans showed English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding underground water. It’s suspected that “witch” came from the Middle English “wicke” for “lively,” since dowsing sticks bend toward the ground when water is detected below, and “wych” is an Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” The “hazel” comes from the plant’s similarity to the hazelnut tree.
Witch hazels prefer well-drained loamy acidic soil, but pH is not a deal breaker, given Yakima’s largely alkaline soils. In the wild, witch hazels grow as an understory plant beneath larger trees. In the garden, site them in full sun for the most stunning display of winter flowers. Witch hazel can grow in part shade, but expect fewer blossoms and more muted fall foliage.
Most grow to a manageable 10 to 20 feet, and some spread as far. Since witch hazels are stressed by drought, mulch to keep roots cool and moist. Any pruning should be done after flowering, but before summer, so that flower buds for the following year have time to form.
Fall foliage colors are spectacular, adding another season of interest. But the witch hazel’s glory is in spidery blossoms with crinkled ribbon petals, bedecking the length of bare branches in the dead of winter.
For those who prefer to garden with natives, Hamamelis virginiana, hardy to Zone 3, is for you. Rather than blooming in the winter, it flowers at the same time its leaves turn golden yellow in the fall. The Chicago Botanical Garden is in the second year of a six-year trial comparing 36 different cultivars from the four major Hamamelis species. So far, of the North American natives, they can recommend “Little Suzie” for abundant flowers on a compact frame; and “Harvest Moon” for dropping its leaves before its lemon yellow flowers open in fall. Both are fragrant.
In the early 1920s, Boston’s Arnold Arboretum discovered a cross between the two Asian species of witch hazel. Since then, many new hybrids (Hamamelis x intermedia) have been introduced in a wider array of colors. Nurseryman Tim Brotzman has grown witch hazels for four decades, and recommends these hybrids:
• “Arnold Promise” was introduced by the Arnold Arboretum almost 40 years ago, and remains one of the best. Pale yellow blossoms, richly scented, are produced late in the season on a vase-shaped shrub. Foliage turns yellow, red and orange in the fall.
• “Barmstedt Gold” is a vigorous, spreading cultivar producing lightly scented flowers in a dark yellow that really stands out against an evergreen background. Its petals are more than an inch long and quite feathery, and fall leaf color is yellow.
• “Diane” has been the standard for dark-flowering witch hazel hybrids for many years. Like most red-flowering selections, its scent is very faint. The petals are broad and about 1 inch long. Fall color can be a vivid mixture of red, yellow and orange.
• “Jelena” is a vigorous-spreading selection with stunning copper-orange flowers about 1 inch long with a very faint scent. Fall color is orange-red.
• “Pallida” is a low, wide-spreading, early flowering cultivar introduced by the Royal Horticultural Society. The flowers are paler, larger and more sweetly scented than those of “Arnold Promise.” Fall color is yellow.
That January visit to the Arboretum was better than a spring tonic for reviving our gardening spirits. We would need it. Little did we know two weeks later, Punxsutawney Phil would predict six more long weeks of winter.
But don’t despair. Earlier on Groundhog Day, the furry meteorologist shared with his handlers that “after winter, you’re looking forward to one of the most beautiful and brightest springs you’ve ever seen.”
Has there been a year when we needed it more?