Witch Hazel – An Underused Winter Blooming Shrub

Surprisingly, many gardeners and non-gardeners alike don’t know about one of the best early flowering shrubs around – Witch Hazel, Hammamelis x intermedia. Fragrant, long blooming, maintenance free and deer resistant, I am always surprised that it isn’t more widely planted.  The winter flowering Hazels –  Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids are crosses between Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis). They are coarse-leaved, loosely-branched, medium to large, deciduous shrubs that typically grow 12-20’ tall.

Witch Hazel, Arnold’s Promise, growing in front of a house

Colorful Hybrids

The hybrids come in an array of colors trending towards the copper and red spectrum. The most common color is yellow – Arnold’s Promise’ – but oranges and copper reds are available, like Diane and Jelena. Doing well in woodland conditions of high shade, you can also site Witch Hazels in sun and they will thrive. It is an easy plant to espalier or grow flat against a wall or house.

Variety of Hazels at the nursery
Hamamelis ‘Diane’

‘Diane’ is a red-flowered form with spreading branches. It typically grows to 8-12’ tall and to 10-15’ wide over 10 years. This is a slow growth rate and it is easy to prune smaller. Blooming from January to March, clusters of these flowers, clothe the branches thickly. The coarse leaves turn shades of yellow, orange and red in fall.

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Jelena Witch Hazel

Fall Blooming Native Witch Hazel

Not to be confused with the fall blooming Hammamelis virginiania, which is the native variety and worthy in its own right, the hybrids come in beautiful colors, like copper, and garnet red. Spider-like, all varieties of flowers are intensely fragrant, long lasting, and particularly visible as the spring foliage hasn’t emerged yet. By growing a variety of Witch Hazels, you can have blooms in the landscape from October to March, when blooms are sorely needed.

The native American Witch Hazel

For late fall color, October into December color, one of the best choices is the native Hamamelis virginiana, with its curious spider-like fragrant yellow flowers. An understory small tree or large shrub, it flowers when most other shrubs and trees have finished blooming, in partly shady or sunny locations. An often-overlooked shrub during the summer, with medium green crinkled leaves, the pollinator for the native is not bees, unless we get a warm spell, but a winter moth that is active on very cold nights. Amazingly, the moths have the unique ability to raise their body temperature by the simple method of shivering to find their food on freezing nights.

Crinkled leaves
Small Jelena

All varieties of Witch Hazel can be grown in containers for a few years for a great pot plant, but as it gets older, it will need to be transplanted into the landscape.

Culture

Preferring well-amended soil and regular water Witch Hazels are tolerant of acid or alkaline conditions. Native forms are hardier, while most hybrid cultivars grow in USDA Zones 5-8. Once established, they are virtually maintenance-free and resistant to most pests and diseases. Witch hazel extract is commonly used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. The supple branches are still used as divining rods to search for water sources. Wild turkeys and squirrels feed on the seeds and it is the larval host for several butterfly species. An astringent made from the leaves and bark is still sold worldwide for a variety of uses.

My witch hazel has two varieties grafted – Arnold’s Promise and Diane

Prune before summer so that the following year’s buds can develop. Suckering twigs that form around the base should be removed. Once new flower buds appear, branches can be cut and forced to bloom inside.

GROWING WITCH HAZEL TIPS

  • Witch hazels require a winter chill to attain best flowering
  • They appreciate some summer water; supplement if you live in a dry area
  • Mulching is beneficial for retaining moisture

WITCH HAZEL DESIGNING TIPS

  • Companion plants such as hellebores, bulbs of hardy cyclamen, aconites, and snowdrops,  can be naturalized around the base.
  • To extend seasonal interest, train a clematis through the branches
  • Site the shrub near a doorway or pathway to appreciate the fragrance
  • Placed against a structure such as a house or wall ensures warmth from the sun for earlier bloom and contrasting drama with the surface
  • A great subject for espaliering, it would preform best on a sunny wall

11 Replies to “Witch Hazel – An Underused Winter Blooming Shrub”

  1. Hi, Claire! I was hoping that native witch hazel would be shorter. We have a very sunny spot by our front walkway where we need to plant something that grows no more than 2-4’ tall. There’s a double window on the garage wall and our dining room picture window is at 90 degrees to the garage. I’m considering a blue spirea, or a reblooming mountain hydrangea or a dwarf ninebark. Any thoughts or suggestions? We’re in zone 7 and the spot is sheltered from the wind. If not an evergreen at least something with interesting shape or bark? Thanks!
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      1. Thanks for reminding me about bottlebrush shrub! I was going to check on ‘Blue Mist’ as its blue leaves description appeals to me. Do you think it would work better with two of them or one’Suzanne’ and one ‘Blue Mist’ ? The sun is very intense in this area and that concerns me some, too.
        Thanks!

  2. I have always loved and have wanted to grow a witch Hazel for years (we even named our dog Hazel in honor of this plant). But we live in zone 9b. Would any of the hybrids be happy here?

  3. I love your blog and have learned so much from it- thanks for introducing lots of plants, gardening projects and ideas.
    Do you have a nursery recommendation where to obtain a witch hazel shrub, either ‘Diane’ or ‘Arnold’s Promise’? Thank you.

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