Winter is for Witchhazel

The cold winter season is enough to keep many plants, and most gardeners, in a state of suspended animation patiently waiting for warm breezes and bright sunshine. But, among these droves of winter evaders, there is one with the fortitude to tempt ‘old man winter’ and produce not solely a plump bud or a greenish stem, but a flower with fragrance and style unlike any other blooming shrub. The plant is Witchhazel and it is the hero of a winter garden. witchhazel 2015-10-27-13.21

The name witchhazel has little to do with witches or hazels. The word “witch” is a derivative of the word “wych” meaning pliable or flexible. During colonial America, the pliable forked branches of witchhazel made for favorite divining rods of dowsers searching for hidden water sources or precious metals.

There are five species of witchhazel – two native, two from Asia, and one hybrid. Most witchhazels used in landscapes are cultivars of the hybrid. Even still there is reason to consider the others. Both natives, for example, are unique as one is the last shrub in our area to flower, the other the first.

The Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is native to the eastern United States and commonly found along forest edges, sometimes on floodplains and along boggy or rocky streams. It is a large shrub or small multistemmed tree with a broadly rounded form growing to 20 feet tall. H. virginiana is the hardiest of all witchhazels surviving at temperatures 35 degrees F below zero. Its leaves are dark, glossy green, about 3 to 6 inches long, turning to a clear yellow in the fall. Unlike the other witchhazel species, the common witchhazel blooms in the fall after all its leaves have dropped. In late autumn and winter, the squiggly yellow petals of fragrant flowers appear. Each of the long petals is narrow and crumpled, looking not unlike the legs of a spider or octopus. The fruit that develops will ripen the following summer and have a unique means of mechanical distribution. In other words, when they are ripe, the seed capsules explode apart with a cracking pop and catapult seeds up to ten yards from the shrub.

Our other native, Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is the earliest-flowering shrub blooming during the warmer days of winter and persisting into spring. Its flowers are extremely fragrant but less noticeable due to their small size and the plant’s habit of holding onto last year’s leaves which effectively mask the blooms. The blooms are variable in color from yellow to orange to a rusty color. Each petal is thin and thread-like with the ability to roll up and withdraw as a survival mechanism to avoid freezing damage. This shrub is smaller than the common witchhazel, maturing at 8 to 10 feet tall with a similar spread. Fall color is chartreuse most years but golden-yellow in good years. Vernal Witchhazel is very adaptable to a wide range of soil types, sunlight exposures, and moisture conditions. It would be an excellent choice for naturalized areas, erosion sites, or neglected areas.

Witchhazels have a unique place in the landscape. Not unlike the daffodils that herald in the spring, witchhazels give us a reason to stir during the hardest part of winter and the hope of warmer days ahead.

Submitted by Amy Aldenderfer, Agent for Horticulture, Hardin Co. Cooperative Extension