One of the stars of the winter garden are the Witch Hazels or Hamamelis.
The main merit of these shrubs is that in the cooler, traditionally non-gardening months, Witch Hazels clothe their leafless branches with jewel-like flowers in shades of yellow, orange and red.
Gardeners may be familiar with our Eastern United States native woodland Witch Hazel that is very adaptable in the garden. This species grows in almost all semi shade positions from dry to wet.
The seed of this Witch Hazel was first sent from Virginia to England in the late 1600’s, so was named Hamamelis virginiana. It was named Hazel as it resembled the English Hazel nut tree in leaf shape. It has been grown in gardens since the 1700’s.
Like many other North American native plants, the fall color is wonderful, with the added bonus of yellow fragrant fall flowers and the fruit also remaining on the plant.
A specimen of H. virginiana is found on campus behind Cottage Hall.
In February, however, the Witch Hazels that we all crave in the garden are the early spring bloomers. The Ozark Witch Hazel is blooming now next to the student walkway, near to the new Healing Garden. It is not native to this area, but to areas of the Midwest. Our old specimen is huge and has been pruned back to allow access for the new path to the Healing Garden. The flowers are not that showy, but the fragrance on a sunny day is wonderful.
For a more showy flowering shrub in the late winter, early spring garden gardeners love the hybrid Witch Hazels. The taxonomy of these plants is referred to as Hamamelis xintermedia to denote that they are from a mixture of different Hamamelis parents.
This classification was first described in the 1940’s, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that these plants became more common in cultivation. The first of these hybrid Witch Hazels to really reach the trade in America and become popular in gardens was
H xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise,’ (often mislabeled as ‘Arnold’s Promise’). This plant originated, as many other Woody Plant introductions have, at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. The yellow strap-like petals that curl and uncurl with temperature changes, have fascinated young and old alike since then.
Many other well known hybrids come from Belgium, where the husband and wife team of Robert and Jelena de Belder have been evaluating and introducing Hamamelis hybrids for many years. Some of the more popular introductions include the red flowering ‘Diane,’ named after their daughter, and the orange flowering ‘Jelena.’ ‘Jelena’ combines bright marmalade orange with a wonderful maroon base color that makes the orange pop. (Think ‘Dunkin Donuts’ colors!) The clusters of spider-like flowers hug the branches, and with no leaves emerged, the floral display is bright and obvious.
When the sun shines on the flowers, they release a citrusy fragrance into the air, which can be smelled from some distance. Like many other winter bloomers, fragrance is important to the plant to attract the few pollinators that are flying about at this time of year.
In my own garden, ‘Northview,’ this week, with the mild temperatures in the Philadelphia area, there were bees out, flitting from flower to flower. ‘Jelena’ in full bloom, and the white snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii) nearby were also attracting the bees too.
Some of the hybrid Witch Hazels are more fragrant than others. My other personal favorites include ‘Pallida’ – which is an intense sulfur yellow, and ‘Primavera,’ another yellow. Site these bright yellow beauties in front of an evergreen backdrop and they will shine like beacons.
Other fragrant winter wonders to consider, include the low growing, insignificant looking, Sarcoccoca, and the spiky shrub Mahonia. Adding a few of these scented plants near to your back door adds a sense of joy to your hurried dash to the heated seats in your car.
If you would like to know more about Witch Hazels, the best book to refer to is Witch Hazels by Chris Lane, published by Timber Press in 2005.
The new H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ plants will be installed in our Albright Winter Garden in the spring, and the snowdrops are already blooming, so I hope that you will come and visit often!
If you have any questions please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenny Rose Carey
Landscape Arboretum of Temple University Ambler