Witchhazels are shrubs that flower so late into fall, and so early in the spring, that they practically count as winter-blooming miracles. By planting a couple of types you can have branches to cut for indoor decoration in November and again in March, when we most need a dose of some living thing.
The fall-blooming type is Hamamelis virginiana, which is native all around here but sometimes gets missed amid all the yellow foliage in the woods. In a garden it’s much more showy, and gets to small tree size. The spidery flowers are a sharp yellow but because the petals are so delicate, the effect is never strident, and the fragrance is spicy-sweet. The odd little seed pods remain on the plant for many months and when ripe, shoot their seed up to 30 feet (!)
The other American native is Hamamelis vernalis, blooming in spring and hardy here though native to the Ozarks. It’s a bit showier in bloom and useful for natural areas where it will sucker to form a colony. Both the American types are traditionally used by well-witchers, or dowsers, to find water. And the early New England settlers made an astringent and anti-inflammatory concoction by boiling the twigs in water, a trick they learned from the Indians.
The showiest Witchhazels we sell are the Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids, crosses between the Japanese and Chinese species. These are all named varieties that are typically grafted onto the native Witchhazel rootstocks. ‘Arnold Promise’ is the classic bright, glowing yellow. ‘Jelena’, named for a famous Belgian plantswoman, Jelena de Belder, has coppery coral flowers, ‘Diane’ is similar in color but deeper, and ‘Rubin’ is a nice pinkish red. All are fragrant, easy to grow, pest free, and in time make nice vase-shaped to rounded shrubs with handsome foliage that colors well in fall.
The only negative thing I can think to say about Witchhazels is that the hybrid types sometimes hold some of their foliage over until the new leaves push in spring. This is rather nice in winter but annoying when the flowers start to open. One meticulous gardener I know (not naming any names, let’s just call him “Scott F.”) picks the old leaves off his plant every year, so the flowers show to perfection. Fortunately, as they bloom so early, it’s possible to spend an hour grooming one’s Witchhazel without feeling guilty about neglecting other, more pressing garden tasks. So carry on.