Plant witch hazels for earliest spring color

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Fri., Feb. 11, 2011
Contributed
- Contributed Photo

Even if your gardens do contain a good bit of winter interest, there’s nothing like flowers to signal that spring is almost here. Among the earliest of bloomers are members of the witch hazel (Hamamelis) family.
Our native witch hazel, H. virginiana, graces open woodlands with pale yellow flowers in November. Witch hazel extract is distilled from the bark of its roots and young stems. It is sold mostly as an astringent these days, but in the past was used as a liniment for bruises and inflammations.
Another native, the vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis), is hardy in Massachusetts but generally found growing wild from Missouri to Louisiana. Vernal witch hazels usually grow as multi-stemmed shrubs, with the older branches taking on a very becoming gray color. This species will slowly mature at 6 to 10 feet and is noted for its curving, serpentine branches.
Flowers of this species are yellow, about one-half-inch long, and fragrant. Buds will open in late February to mid-March. The milder the winter, the earlier the blossoms. The unique flowers consist of four narrow petals, often crinkled or twisted. On very cold days, the petals will roll up, offering some frost protection and extending the bloom period.
More fragrant are the Chinese witch hazels (H. mollis). These are also very early bloomers which can be grown as a large shrub or small tree. Plants reach between 10 and 15 feet in both height and width, and are hardy to zone 5. Temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees below zero F will damage the flower buds. Some yellow flowering cultivars you might consider are ‘Brevipetale,’ ‘Coombe Wood,’ ‘Goldcrest’ or ‘Pallida.’ The Chinese witch hazel blooms most years in March.
Japanese witch hazels (H. japonica) are occasionally found in commerce, but most plants that are available are hybrids between the Japanese and Chinese witch hazels (H. x intermedia). This increasingly popular group of plants combines the best traits of the two species. Plants have an upright spreading growth habit and may reach 15 feet or so.
Blossoms may open from late January through March, depending on the cultivar and the weather. Colors range from pale yellow to gold, orange and coppery red. Most readily available is ‘Arnold’s Promise,’ introduced by the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. Clear yellow flowers are almost an inch long and very fragrant. ‘Ruby Glow’ and ‘Diane’ are two of the more popular red flowering forms.
All witch hazels like an acidic, moist soil high in organic matter. They tolerate part shade, but flower most profusely in full sun. Fall leaf color for most is a rich gold with the red flowering varieties exhibiting more reddish autumn tones. Witch hazels have few insect or disease problems. Branches cut and brought inside in late January through February are easily forced into bloom.
If you can’t wait for the first flowers of the season to unfurl, think about where you can plant a witch hazel for enticing fragrance and the earliest color of the year. For questions on witch hazels or on other home or garden-related items, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension Center.


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