Witch hazel: The delights and challenges

Witch hazel shrubs flower in winter, which is a delight. But sometimes gardeners have challenges with them.

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    Each delicate bloom of the Pallida witch hazel has four long, skinny, wrinkly petals surrounded by purplish red sepals.
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    Due to their fickle blooming schedule and tendency to hold on to dead foliage, witch hazels may sometimes be frustrating shrubs to raise. This 'Arnold Promise' witch hazel didn't produce its first flower until its eighth year.
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I develop strong attachments to certain plants — not love exactly, but fascination. I watch them change through the seasons, and they surprise me. Every year they look different, growing and maturing like children — each one precious, each unique.

One of my favorites is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’. It has been in full bloom at least since March 1. That may not be news for you, since witch hazels typically bloom in winter, some time between January and March.

But this is special for me. It’s my first ‘Pallida’ and the first time this young plant, which has lived with us for about two years, has fully bloomed. It’s luminous. ‘Pallida’ enchanted me years ago on a January trip with friends to England.

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Wandering around the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley, Surrey, we came upon a stand of witch hazels. ‘Pallida’ glowed, making other witch hazels look coarse in comparison.

My shrub is about 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide, but it may eventually grow to 10 or 12 feet high and wide. Hardy in Zones 5-8, it has an elegant, open, vase-shaped, spreading form.

‘Pallida’s lightly fragrant, lemon-hued flowers cluster on naked branches. Each delicate bloom has four long, skinny, wrinkly petals surrounded by purplish red sepals.

Witch hazel petals react to weather, curling up to protect themselves from frost and unfurling on milder days. In fall, the soft leaves turn a fine yellow before dropping. ‘Pallida’ thrives in a partly shaded border with mulched moist, acidic soil. If I had space, I’d grow it as an informal hedge.

While ‘Pallida’ is my good witch hazel child, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is my challenge. Our shrub is about 10 years old and measures roughly 5 feet by 5 feet with a lovely rounded habit.

The trouble is, for the first eight years, we never saw a flower because the shrub never once dropped its big coarse leaves. They remained attached to the plant even as the flowers, if there were any, bloomed.

It’s not uncommon for witch hazels to hold onto dead foliage, but when it happened to us, we felt frustrated at not seeing this shrub – so famous for its big fragrant winter blooms – achieve its potential.

The Royal Horticultural Society says that this phenomenon is most common with yellow-flowered varieties, and that weather and age may be factors in this behavior: A warm autumn followed by sudden frost may be all it takes for more leaves to stay on the branches.

At Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, an instructor suggested removing the leaves one by one, using an up and out motion. It worked, but we didn’t have the patience to pull more than one-quarter of them on a freezing, snowy New England winter day.

Bob, my husband, wanted to ditch ‘Arnold Promise’, but its handsome rounded to vase-shaped habit and yellow fall color made me insist that it stay.

We compromised, and moved the shrub from the border near ‘Pallida’ to the sunny, exposed edge of a roadside culvert, where winter salt would drench it and sand would beat it.

That did the trick. Although I suggest that you site your witch hazel in a more protected, hospitable spot, ‘Arnold Promise’ is oddly flourishing with the added stress (though it may not live as long).

It grows well, drops its leaves in fall, and this year we’ve been enjoying its bronzy buds and big golden yellow flowers. Mind you, we’re seeing hundreds of half-open buds with just a quarter or so in full bloom, but we appreciate what we’ve got.

Penelope O’Sullivan is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She is the author of "The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook" and 11 more books on trees, shrubs, hedges, flowers, herbs, and garden design. She is a guest speaker on many gardening topics, has written and scouted for numerous magazines, and owns a garden design business in New Hampshire.

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