Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
November, 2011
Regional Report

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In late winter at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, all eyes are on 'Jelena' witch hazel.

Fall Under the Spell of Witch Hazel

Many of my favorite plants are fragrant winter bloomers. The list includes Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume), paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), and shrub honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), just to name a few. And yesterday, in my never ending quest for more, I planted my first Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis).

The selected cultivar was 'Wisley Supreme', an open shrub that typically grows 10 to 15 feet tall and slightly less wide. Favored for its February blooms, the shrub offers extremely large and fragrant yellow flowers that are touched with red at base of each crinkled petal. Handsome, dark green leaves emerge yellow-green in spring and turn gold in autumn.

I even like the plant's moniker. How can it fail to perform when it's named for one of the most stunning gardens in the world, RHS Garden Wisley, near London?

My search for the ideal witch hazel didn't begin in England, however. Instead, I was inspired last winter by a similar shrub at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, North Carolina. Located in a long border near to the visitor's pavilion, Hamamelis x intermedia'Jelena' was in full and glorious bloom in early March.

'Jelena' (occasionally labeled 'Copper Beauty' or 'Orange Beauty') is a hybrid cultivar of the Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and the Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica), and like both parents, the shrub blooms when you least expect to find flowers in the garden.

With a multi-trunk, spreading form, the plant measured roughly 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide. The flowers' petals, which emerged from a burgundy calyx, were copper colored at their base and golden at the tip.

Over-the-top shrubs like 'Jelena' and 'Wisley Supreme' are perfect for breaking up the monotony of long boundaries. They can also be used as a focal point around patios and decks or as a transition plant between cultivated landscapes and woodland areas.

If you prefer native plants, look for common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). This shrub also has an open, spreading habit, usually grows to 15 feet tall and wide, and blooms with pale yellow flowers in late autumn or winter. The shrub is a bit more straggling, however, and sometimes flowers can be obscured by foliage.

Native Americans used the branches of common witch hazel to make bows and dousing rods. In fact, the common name 'witch' was derived from "wych," an Anglo-Saxon word meaning bendable branches. The Native Americans also made an extract from the bark of young shoots and roots that was used in dozens of remedies and as a coagulant. Many will recognize the name witch hazel as a cosmetic astringent.

In general, witch hazels prefer sun but will tolerate shade. Those grown in heavy shade will have a more open form and less color. Plants are cold hardy in the Middle South but can be susceptible to drought.

If properly planted, witch hazels will rarely need additional care. Where the existing soil is heavy, dig a planting hole that is three times as wide as the root ball, but slightly less deep. Then, once planted, add a two to four-inch layer of mulch to help retain moisture. Remember to irrigate during dry spells, and when feeding is helpful, use a general purpose fertilizer before new growth begins in spring.

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