ALTHOUGH I eagerly await the beginning of the winter season, the novelty can wear off pretty quickly! Come February, winter casts a pall over the landscape - and also over my mind. I long for the crisp taste of fresh vegetables from the garden and the smell of fresh flowers. The paper-white narcissus I forced for Christmas are past. Yet there is a brightness in my garden among the leafless trees and shrubs. What a joy to look out my window and see a shrub flowering in the snow - witch hazel.
If I want, I can do a bit of selective pruning and cut a small flowering branch. When brought inside, it will fill the room with its sweet fragrance for several weeks.
Although witch hazels bloom in the dead of winter when nothing else gives color, now is the time to get them into the ground. Many large nurseries carry them. Be sure to get them into the ground early enough so they have a chance to get their roots established before the ground freezes.
Witch hazels are not difficult to grow. All prefer well-drained, light, loamy, slightly acid soil. The Oriental varieties prefer full sun, while the native witch hazels will do very well in light shade, with slightly moist, but not wet, soil.
When planting, choose a site that will highlight the winter flowering habits of these unusual shrubs, such as a sheltered south-facing area with a dark background. If you want the plant to grow shrubby, it requires little or no pruning.
Witch hazels are members of the family Hamamelidaceae. The name comes from the Greek words for ``together'' (hama) and ``fruit'' (mela), as the fruit and flowers can often be found at the same time on these ornamental small trees and shrubs.
The common name was given to these plants by early Virginians around 1700 for the Anglo-Saxon witch meaning ``to bend.'' In those days, the supple branches were used in divining for water.
The flowers of witch hazels are unique. Slender, ribbonlike petals, surrounded by the four-lobed calyx, unfurl on sunny days, giving the flowers a spidery appearance. They are also called ``snapping'' hazel, as the seed capsules split explosively when ripe, sending the small black seeds as far as 20 feet into the air. Chinese and Japanese types
Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, is the most desirable of the winter bloomers. Capable of reaching a height of 30 feet, it can be grown either as a tree or shrub. It blooms from late January through March. Extremely fragrant, it will grow as far north as Boston.
The petals, three-quarters of an inch in length, are golden yellow, with a reddish tinge at the base and a slight hook at the end. The inside of the calyx is a brownish purple.
The 4- to 5-inch leaves are roundish obovate in shape, slightly heart-shaped at the base, and hairy on their undersides. Unfortunately, Chinese witch hazel is becoming difficult to find.
A cultivated variety of the Chinese witch hazel is Hamamelis mollis brevipetala. It has short, brownish-yellow flowers and calyxes, and it flowers profusely.
Japanese witch hazel, Hamamelis japonica, has a more spidery appearance than its Chinese cousin, as its petals are somewhat longer, narrower, twisted, and more pendulous. Its calyx interior is a purplish red. Blooming a bit earlier than Hamamelis mollis, it is only slightly fragrant. Japanese witch hazel comes in several varieties.
Hybridizers have been hard at work in America, Japan, and Europe. Many crosses have been made of H. japonica with H. mollis. The results have been named Hamamelis intermedia.
They usually take on the best characteristics of both parents, with the flowers having the upright habit of the H. mollis. One of the best known is Arnold Promise, with beautiful bright yellow flowers. Others include Orange Beauty (also known as Jelena), Ruby Glow, and Winter Beauty. American types
There are two native-American witch hazels, Hamamelis vernalis and Hamamelis virginiana. H. vernalis, native from Louisiana to Missouri and Oklahoma, is extremely fragrant though relatively small. A shrub that rarely grows more than six feet in height, it spreads by suckers.
In more Southern regions, vernal witch hazels can bloom as early as December, but in the Northeast, they tend not to blossom until March or even April. The short, half-inch petals are light yellow, with a red blush to the base. Their inner calyxes are dark red.
There are two exceptional varieties. Hamamelis vernalis tomentella is hairy on the underside of its leaves with a glaucous covering and petals varying from yellowish to reddish. H. vernalis carnea flowers are reminiscent of a bright new copper penny. It blooms at the same time as Chinese witch hazel.
Although not a winter bloomer, virginiana witch hazel is unique in its own right. How marvelous to have a shrub in flower when there is little else of interest in the garden! By late fall, its leaves have turned yellow, but not yet fallen, when it comes into fragrant bloom.
I am always thrilled to come across this unassuming shrub blooming in the wild. Growing up to 15 feet tall, it is the least hairy of all the witch hazels. The bright yellow petals are relatively small, from half to three-quarters of an inch long.
Virginiana witch hazel's native range is from Georgia to Nova Scotia, Arkansas, and Nebraska. In the home landscape, it can be striking when paired with late berrying shrubs, such as purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) or red-berried winterberry (Ilex verticillata) or white birch trees.
When selecting witch hazel, deal with a reputable nursery, and be sure to get a plant that is mature enough to bloom this year. With careful pruning in midwinter, you can enjoy the beauty and fragrance of these marvelous ornamentals indoors as well as outdoors.