A shrub that blooms in the middle of winter? That's right. Imagine a barren winter landscape with snowdrifts and grey streets brought to life by plants covered with small flowers that look like mini-firecrackers or tiny party streamers.
That's witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.), a large shrub that blooms in late fall or late winter, depending on the species, with unique yellow, gold, orange or red flowers. Witch hazels are outstanding landscape plants, particularly in the eastern part of the country from Ontario to Nova Scotia. The flowers are one to two centimetres long, and most cultivars have a delightful spicy fragrance. During the summer, small, horned, capsule-shaped fruit grows at the base of the flowers, eventually splitting to eject two to four shiny black seeds, usually in fall. Foliage is not as showy during the summer months, but as fall approaches, the dark green leaves turn yellow with hints of purple and red. The alternate, oval-shaped leaves are six to 15 centimetres long and are slightly tooth-edged with hairy undersides.
Witch hazel species to plant
There are four main species and one hybrid (H. x intermedia), which is a cross between H. japonica and H. mollis, and almost 100 named varieties, mostly cultivars of H. intermedia. The two species native to North America are common witch hazel (H. virginiana, Zone 4), which blooms in late fall, and vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis, Zone 5), which blooms in early spring. Both are loosely spreading shrubs with an open habit and grow from 4.5 metres tall (vernal) to 10 metres tall (common witch hazel).
Native witch hazels grow in shade but tolerate some sun. Although they can be grown in all kinds of soil, they prefer moist, well-drained conditions. Little pruning is required except to tidy their shape; errant branches should be cut off during flowering.
Photo: 'Pallida,' photography by Ernst Kucklich