Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Trees, Shrubs, & Vines

Witch Hazels

by Michael A. Dirr

Why witch hazels (Hamamelis) are not more widely grown is a mystery to me. These lovely, maintenance-free, and adaptable plants provide brilliant flower and leaf color at otherwise colorless times of year. And the sweet, penetrating fragrance of some flowers is a bonus.

All are medium to large deciduous shrubs, and most have a spreading habit and branches that grow in a zigzag fashion. Flowers have four strap-shaped petals in colors ranging from yellow to red. Bloom starts in January in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 and 8, no later than March in colder regions, and one species even blooms in fall. Cuttings from any of the spring-blooming kinds brought indoors now will brighten and scent an entire house.

Early one March, I encountered three kinds of witch hazels in bloom at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania (zone 6). All were spectacular -- far more so than forsythia, in my opinion. Then in early November, I saw the same three plants in full fall color. Again, all were gorgeous.

Witch hazels are outstanding landscape plants in zones 6 through 8, particularly in the eastern half of the country, but also in the Pacific Northwest west of the Cascade Range. Most varieties of H. intermedia (hybrids of H. japonica and H. mollis) are reliable as far north as zone 5, and the hardiest of all, common witch hazel (H. virginiana), takes winters all the way to zone 3.

Planting and Care

Witch hazels are easy to grow and usually free of pests and diseases. Optimum soil is well drained, evenly moist, and slightly acidic. Incorporating organic matter into the soil at planting time produces ideal conditions. Likewise, full sun is ideal, but they tolerate a considerable amount of shade. Most often the only pruning necessary is removal of dead branches.

Propagation is often by grafting, with H. virginiana as the typical rootstock. This is not a good idea, in my opinion. Time and again, I have observed suckering (vigorous growth from roots) and incompatibility between rootstock and scion. You can recognize suckers by their origin from the base of the plant. If these appear, remove them at once to prevent their overtaking the plant. In my garden, all the H. intermedia 'Arnold Promise' grow on their own roots, so if suckering occurs it presents no problem. Unfortunately most witch hazels, except H. vernalis and H. virginiana, are grafted more often than not (you can tell by the bulge at the base of the plant). I recommend taking the trouble to search out ungrafted plants.

Best Kinds of Witch Hazels

Even with only four main species and one hybrid species, there are nearly 100 named varieties (cultivars), most of them selections of H. intermedia, and many of these are duplicates or only slightly distinct. Here are a few of my favorites.

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