In my last column, I talked about the winter interest that is supplied by Hellebores, Sarcacoca and Daphne odora. But there are many more shrubs and perennials that we find blooming in the otherwise bleak months of January and February.
One of my favorites is the witch hazel Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diana.’ Most of the witch hazels bloom with pretty yellow or orange flowers that are lightly scented. The flowers form clusters that remind me of nothing more than shredded crepe paper or coconut flakes. But the ‘Diana’ (named after Princess Diana, so it has been around a while) has a dark red flower. I don’t notice much of a scent on this one, but the flowers are very pretty in their little clusters. The flowers turn a more orange-red in the fall.
I have had my ‘Diana’ for almost 12 years now, and it wasn’t until the winter of 2017 that she really came into her own. Before, I would get a few flower clusters, but now each year she seems to have more and more.
Witch hazel is a deciduous plant that blooms on the bare branches each winter or early spring, depending on the variety. Some varieties like H. mollis, (Chinese witch hazel), can grow to 15 feet. Others top out at 8 to 10 feet. Mine is only at about 6 feet after all these years. Witch hazels have a very open, spreading growth and their branching pattern is what I consider delicate. I could call this a shrub or maybe a small tree, depending on the variety and the way it is pruned. A lot of pruning is not desirable, only to remove crossing branches or suckers. I also like to snip a branch or two to bring inside and scent the house.
As far as placement, these plants prefer full sun or part shade. They like to be protected from the wind, and will do well pretty much wherever rhododendrons are happy. It took me about 5 years of moving poor ‘Diana’ from place to place until she found a spot she liked. It is actually very shady in the summer, but sunny in the winter as it is under the canopy of an alder that, of course, loses it leaves in the fall, allowing ‘Diana’ to have all the winter sun she could want. Witch hazels also like a rich, organic soil, so a side dressing of well-seasoned compost is helpful in the late summer or early fall when the plants are forming the tiniest flower buds for the following spring.
Witch hazels like regular water and so they are a perfect plant for the Northwest. The sunny yellow or dark red flowers are a plus in the dreary days of winter when few other plants are in bloom.
Many of the Hamamelis are now grafted onto a different stock, so remove any suckers or branches that start to arise from below the graft. If you can, try to only purchase stock that has been grown on its own root stock. It is pretty easy to tell when they are grafted as the graft will look like a large swelling near the base of the plant.
Gardeners often confuse witch hazel with winter hazel (I certainly have.) as they both have similar leaves. And, in fact, the winter hazels are a genus within the hazel family of Hamamelidaceae. But the flowers of the winter hazel droop down, while the witch hazel spring upward in clumps. Both are nice shrubs or small trees for the garden, both bloom in the late winter or early spring, and both need about the same growing conditions. So, it is a matter of choice as to which one you prefer. While the winter hazels may be a little harder to find in the nurseries, they are becoming gradually more popular. And I understand that the winter hazels make excellent bonsai. This might be a solution if you have a small garden and enjoy working with bonsai trees. Bonsai do need more attention and maintenance than if the winter hazel was placed in the garden, though.
A few years ago, I bought a winter hazel (Corylopsis) from a Portland nursery. Over the years, it has grown into more of a tree than a shrub. It is still only about 5 feet tall, but has a very spreading growth habit, taking up about 10 feet of space around it. The flowers are a very pretty, drooping bell-shape of yellow that will start to bloom in the next week or so. The buds are getting ready to break as I write.
I can’t wait for the winter hazel to bloom as it is placed next to the Sarcacocoa and Daphne in my garden, so when one of those shrubs stops scenting the air, the others will pick up the slack. It is like a spray of perfume as I enter my gate.