Feathery tendrils of gold envelop rich red-purple centers, brightening a corner of the garden on dreary winter days and sending a heady sweet aroma wafting across the lawn. That’s what witchhazels (Hamamelis) will do for you. They’re one of my favorite shrubs for year-around interest in the garden, but especially in February as they come into bloom.
Witchhazels (sometimes written as two words, witch hazel) are shrubs or small trees that will ultimately reach about 15 feet tall and wide. They grow best in slightly acid to neutral, well-drained but moist soil. Plant them in full sun for the best growth form, although they’ll accept partial shade. Like many other plants, the more shade the more straggly and leggy the growth.
In the winter garden witchhazels look great underplanted with hellebores or epimediums. You can see both combinations in the winter garden at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, where most of the photographs here were made.
Three species of witchhazel are native to eastern and southern North America, but not the Pacific Northwest. The most commonly cultivated witchhazels are from China (Hamamelis mollis) or hybrids of Chinese and Japanese species (Hamamelis x intermedia). The hybrids may be grafted or budded onto the rootstock of the eastern native (H. virginiana), which can be found in the wild roughly from the Mississippi River east.
The North American native, American witchhazel, blooms in the fall at the same time the leaves turn brilliant gold. It’s a plant I don’t remember growing up in West Virginia, but on a trip back there to visit Dolly Sods in autumn one year I stumbled upon a patch of it and instantly recognized it as a Hamamelis because of the feathery petals. Because it blooms in the fall and the flowers can get a little lost among the leaves, American witchhazel isn’t as common as a garden specimen as the Chinese or hybrid varieties.
As we renovate and update the garden we inherited with our new home we’re planning to add at least one witchhazel. I’m partial to Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis) because of its long, bright yellow petals, delightful fragrance, and golden fall color. Natalie has suggested we plant one of the x intermedia varieties with coppery orange petals, perhaps ‘Jelena,’ which turns brilliant red in autumn, or ‘Winter Beauty.’
Witchhazels are hardy to USDA zone five, easy to grow, given the right conditions, and require little maintenance. You can prune them after flowering to maintain a more compact size and encourage more blossoms. For details about cultivation and pruning see the Royal Horticultural Society witchhazel page. Deer are reported to browse on witchhazels, so be prepared to share if you have deer.