Why witch hazels (Hamamelis) are not more widely grown is a mystery to me. These lovely, maintenance-free, and adaptable plants provide brilliant flower and leaf color at otherwise colorless times of year. And the sweet, penetrating fragrance of some flowers is a bonus.
All are medium to large deciduous shrubs, and most have a spreading habit and branches that grow in a zigzag fashion. Flowers have four strap-shaped petals in colors ranging from yellow to red. Bloom starts in January in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 and 8, no later than March in colder regions, and one species even blooms in fall. Cuttings from any of the spring-blooming kinds brought indoors now will brighten and scent an entire house.
Early one March, I encountered three kinds of witch hazels in bloom at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania (zone 6). All were spectacular -- far more so than forsythia, in my opinion. Then in early November, I saw the same three plants in full fall color. Again, all were gorgeous.
Witch hazels are outstanding landscape plants in zones 6 through 8, particularly in the eastern half of the country, but also in the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascade Range. Most varieties of H. intermedia (hybrids of H. japonica and H. mollis) are reliable as far north as zone 5, and the hardiest of all, common witch hazel (H. virginiana), takes winters all the way to zone 3.
Witch hazels are easy to grow and usually free of pests and diseases. Optimum soil is well drained, evenly moist, and slightly acidic. Incorporating organic matter into the soil at planting time produces ideal conditions. Likewise, full sun is ideal, but they tolerate a considerable amount of shade. Most often the only pruning necessary is removal of dead branches.
Propagation is often by grafting, with H. virginiana as the typical rootstock. This is not a good idea, in my opinion. Time and again, I have observed suckering (vigorous growth from roots) and incompatibility between rootstock and scion. You can recognize suckers by their origin from the base of the plant. If these appear, remove them at once to prevent their overtaking the plant. In my garden, all the H. intermedia 'Arnold Promise' grow on their own roots, so if suckering occurs it presents no problem. Unfortunately most witch hazels, except H. vernalis and H. virginiana, are grafted more often than not (you can tell by the bulge at the base of the plant). I recommend taking the trouble to search out ungrafted plants.
Even with only four main species and one hybrid species, there are nearly 100 named varieties (cultivars), most of them selections of H. intermedia, and many of these are duplicates or only slightly distinct. Here are a few of my favorites.
H. intermedia (hybrid of H. japonica and H. mollis); zones 5 through 8; 15 to 20 feet. Among these are the most highly regarded ornamental witch hazels. These hybrids were originally described in 1945 by horticultural taxonomist Alfred Rehder, who studied plants growing in Boston's Arnold Arboretum.
Plants are usually vigorous, upright-spreading, and rather loosely branched if not pruned. Some types display wide-spreading habits. They flower from late January into mid-March in the north, earlier farther south. Colors range from yellow to red. (Red-flowered types may also show more red fall coloration than the yellow-flowered types, but this is not absolute.)
Flower buds are not as hardy as branches. In 1994, after exposure to -22° to -24° F in the vicinity of Louisville, Kentucky, H. intermedia varieties did not flower where plants were not covered by snow.
The number of named varieties now available is staggering, and without a scorecard it is difficult to separate the best. These six are my favorites.
'Arnold Promise'. Clear yellow, fragrant flowers have a reddish base. Each petal is almost an inch long. Bloom in Boston (zone 6) generally begins in late February and lasts until mid-March. The plant reaches about 20 feet tall and wide. Excellent yellow, orange, and red fall color.
'Barmstedt Gold'. Blooms of this German introduction are rich golden yellow suffused with red at the base; fragrance is sweet. Each very narrow petal is almost an inch long; flowers have a claret calyx cup. They appear in late January to early February. Fall color is yellow. Ruth Dix, of the U.S. National Arboretum, considers this vigorous shrub with narrowly ascending branches to be one of the best yellows.
'Diane'. This is one of the best red-flowering forms, better than 'Ruby Glow' but still more copper-red than red. Each very narrow petal is 5/8 to 3/4 inch long, shiny, burnished red turning bronze with age, and faintly fragrant; calyx is purple-red. February is bloom time. I have seen this one in flower on several occasions and was not as impressed as I'd hoped to be: flowers aren't red, and old leaves persist and must be removed to maximize the flower effect. This medium to large shrub with wide-spreading branches produces rich yellow-orange-red fall color.
'Jelena' (indistinguishable from 'Copper Beauty'). Excellent in flower, and from a distance it glows like copper; each 1-inch-long sweet-scented petal is claret red toward base, orange in middle, and yellow at the tip. Petal form is narrow, kinked, and twisted. Leaves turn rich orange-red in fall.
'Pallida'. Soft sulfur yellow flowers have petals about 3/4 inch long with reddish purple base; flowers are profuse and sweetly fragrant. In my garden, this broad-spreading shrub blooms about mid-February. It's one of the best and one of my favorites. (While I do not, many consider this a variety of H. mollis.)
'Ruby Glow' ('Adonis' and 'Rubra Superba'). Coppery red flowers in late January and early February mature to reddish brown; very narrow petals are about 5/8 inch long, kinked and twisted, with a dark purple calyx. Fragrance is weak. Fall leaf color is a combination of orange and red. The original plant is now more than 20 feet high and wide; form is erect and vase-shaped, particularly in youth.
Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica); zones 5 through 8; 10 to 15 feet. This is a sparsely branched, spreading, at times almost flat-topped shrub or small tree. Most of the plants I have seen in cultivation were wide-spreading shrubs. The 2- to 4-inch-long leaves often have a sheen and in fall turn rich combinations of yellow, red, and purple. The four-petaled yellow flowers, 2/3 inch long, are very narrow, strap-shaped, and wrinkled and crinkled almost like crepe paper. Two or three flowers occur together on the leafless branches in February or March. They are less showy than those on H. intermedia and H. mollis. Flowers are scented, but not as strongly as those of H. mollis.
H. j. arborea. Tall-growing form (to 15 to 18 feet) has horizontally angled branches. Small yellow flowers with a brown base and a faint sweet scent are produced in abundance. Fall leaf color is yellow. A beautiful plant, but not quite up to the H. intermedia types.
Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis); zones 5 through 8; 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. This native of central China is one of the best witch hazels for the landscape, and probably the most fragrant. Flowers make a beautiful show in February or March. Unfortunately, it is also the least cold-hardy; temperatures of -10° to -15° F will injure flower buds.
Leaves are 3 to 6 inches long and almost as wide. They're an unremarkable medium green in summer, then turn a spectacular yellow to yellow-orange in fall. In my garden, foliage changes in late October or early November. Four-petaled yellow flowers have a rich red-brown base; each strap-shaped petal is 5/8 inch long.
Left to its own devices, this oval to rounded shrub could grow to 20 feet, but overall the growth rate is slow.
'Early Bright'. Compared to the species, flowers are brighter yellow and open three to four weeks earlier: mid-January in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The original 37-year-old plant of this variety is 15 feet tall and wide.
'Goldcrest'. Large flowers, a rich golden yellow suffused with claret at base, have a strong, and sweet scent and often appear later than on other H. mollis varieties. Petals are fatter than those of the species. It flowers in early February in my garden and has been consistently spectacular in Athens and Atlanta, Georgia. Habit is upright and vase-shaped.
Vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis); zones 4 through 8; 6 to 10 feet. Durable plant for the East, Midwest, and upper South. Effective in groupings near large buildings and also makes a good screen or unpruned hedge. This plant's most unusual feature is its early flower date: late December or early January in zone 7, early March in zone 5. Plant is multistemmed, dense, and rounded. Overall, the look is neat, but form is variable. It can also send up shoots from the roots, forming large colonies.
Pungently fragrant yellow-orange to red flowers come in clusters of three or four. Each flower is 1/2 to 3/4 inch across, and petals are about 1/2 inch long. On the downside, the plant may still be holding onto dead leaves when the flowers come, which will diminish the display.
Leaves are 2 to 5 inches long and medium to dark green. Fall color develops late, lasts for two to three weeks, and is often outstanding. It is consistently brilliant yellow in zones 4 through 8, reason enough to grow the plant.
'Autumn Embers'. At its best, produces excellent red-purple fall color, but it's inconsistent in my garden. Orangish flowers. Best in zones 4 and 5.
'Sandra'. Yellow-orange flowers and fiery orange-red fall color, particularly in zones 4 through 6.
Common witch hazel (H. virginiana); zones 3 through 9; 20 to 30 feet with a 15- to 20-foot spread. Witch hazel extract is distilled from the roots and bark of young stems. This North American native grows throughout the woods in most of the eastern U.S. and is a good shrub border candidate, though it may be too large for the average residential garden. Compared to the Asian witch hazels, it is hardier, more vigorous, and more tolerant of pruning. It makes a wonderful display, especially in fall when leaves turn yellow and the flowers' fragrance permeates the cool autumn air.
Leaves are 3 to 6 inches long, 2- to 3-1/2-inches wide, and medium to dark green. Fragrant yellow flowers, composed of four straplike but crumpled petals, emerge as early as October and as late as early December, the same time leaves change. Flowers last two to four weeks, depending mostly on weather.
Michael A. Dirr, professor of horticulture at the Universtiy of Georgia, Athens, is the author of the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Stipes Publishing, 1998; $50).