Just when we need it most, witch hazel puts on a dazzling show for winter-weary gardeners. Depending on the species and cultivar, fragrant, strap-like, crumpled petals bloom in vibrant shades of yellow, orange and red. The spidery flowers dance on bare branches in fall to late winter, and are best displayed against an evergreen backdrop. Although witch hazel has many common names, the generic name Hamamelis means “together with fruit,” as this is the only North American tree to have flowers, ripe fruit and next year’s leaf buds on its branches at the same time.
There are four species and about a hundred cultivars of witch hazel, all of which can be grown as a shrub or small tree. American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms October to December and has yellow, citrus-scented petals. The aromatic extract of leaves, twigs, and bark of this native of eastern North America is used in mildly astringent lotions and salves. The yellow or red flowers of Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) are small, but profuse and appear between January and April. Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) features showy yellow or red flowers blooming January to March. The most fragrant of all species is Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), which has buttery yellow petals appearing in January.
Witch hazel leaves turn showy shades of yellow, red or orange in autumn. Most varieties have a graceful vase-like form, but there are also uprights and sprawlers, ranging in size from 8' to 20’ wide and tall. Most species of witch hazel enjoy full-sun for their best floral show, but will tolerate part-shade. They prefer rich organic soil, and will not flourish in heavy, wet or compact soil. They are subject to drought stress, so providing summer water and mulching their roots in a rich compost is a must.
Many cultivars are produced on grafted stock, so be careful not to bury the bulging graft ridge beneath the soil at planting time. If suckers appear below the graft ridge, be sure to prune them out as they are undesirable. If you decide to prune for size or shape, do so before summer so that the following year’s buds can develop.
Witch hazels are bright, aromatic additions to the winter landscape. Head to the nursery or garden center now to sniff the blooms and pick your favorite variety for a hardy addition to your fragrance garden. If you don't have room in your garden for witch hazel, a number of specimens can be enjoyed at the Arboretum at South Seattle College.
Learn more about witch hazels here.
West Seattle resident Patty J Campbell is a botanist and garden authority with forty years experience in Western Washington landscapes.