Bewitched by Witch Hazels

New arrivals ready for transplanting

Up until last year, my yard lacked Witch Hazels (Hamamelis spp.). They weren’t here when we moved onto our five acres 23+ years ago, and somehow I just hadn’t gotten around to filling that void.

Adding this genus finally rose to the top of my garden must-plant list when I was wandering around the Meadowbrook Nursery Web site. I’ve purchased lovely, healthy native perennials from them before, but I had not noticed that they offer an entire plant category devoted to a gorgeous array of Witch Hazels.

I’ve known about the native Witch Hazels of my region since I was a teenager. Late autumn strolls through nearby woodlands often included a surprise find of a so-called Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in fragrant bloom. In its native habitat, H. virginiana can be easy to overlook. Its leaves tend to cling to the plant through early winter, masking the strappy yellow crumpled petals of this understory species.  Most of the ones I stumbled on were a bit misshapen from bending to find sunlight through the canopy trees.

But horticulturalists have long appreciated the aesthetic potential of this genus, and have created a diverse array of colorful forms with varying blooming times that can adorn Piedmont gardens from October through February. Yes, that’s right, you can have blooming shrubs and trees in your Piedmont garden through our winter months if you pick the right plant and put it in the right place.

Last year, we planted a hybrid between a Chinese and a Japanese species of Witch Hazel. These hybrids are called Hamamelis x intermedia. The cultivar we chose is Aurora. Our little shrub arrived loaded with fat flower buds that opened to reveal vivid yellow-orange flowers in late winter. It is loaded again this year, and its fall leaf color includes a dazzling array of warm reds, oranges, and yellows.  We have every expectation that this thriving specimen will eventually be a breathtaking shrub at least eight feet tall. Imagine a stark February morning woodland landscape warmed by sunny blooms on such a big specimen. It will be magnificent.

But that will be a few years. In the meantime, we still get a surprising number of flowers from our small plant. Here’s a recent photo of it that gives you an idea of its flower bud abundance.

H. x intermedia ‘Aurora’ flower buds

I’ve been so pleased with Aurora that it was easy to talk myself into another Witch Hazel when I needed to add a second plant to my order to meet the minimum cost required for shipping from Meadowbrook Nursery. I had ordered a second Corneliancherry Dogwood (Cornus mas), because the one I planted last year is thriving and I needed a second one to get fruit production via cross pollination.

When I realized I needed a second plant, I instantly turned to the Witch Hazel options. The myriad choices made it tough to decide, but I finally settled on a cultivar of the other North American native species, H. vernalis. This species is native to the Ozark Plateau in central North America, but it happily grows elsewhere when provided good growing conditions. I decided to go with H. vernalis ‘Amethyst,” a beauty with mildly fragrant purple strap-petaled flowers.

The plant I received was already in bloom and is still holding on to green leaves, and I can tell I’m going to very much like this more subtle addition to our landscape. Here it is just after planting.

Newly planted Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’

In this photo, the flowers look more maroon than purple, but in life they do look more purple. Note the abundant healthy green leaves. Theoretically, this plant will bloom a bit later in future years when it is settled, which will make it more likely that the leaves will be gone, thereby allowing the flowers to stand out more. Even now, though, I think the contrast between flower and leaf color is enough to draw attention to the blooms.

Here’s a final shot of the new arrival with a nice layer of mulch surrounding it.

Never add a new plant without immediately mulching it afterward.

See the plant label? I confess our five acres looks a bit like an arboretum, because many of the plants are labeled. About Year Two into our time here, Wonder Spouse noticed that I was losing track of the names of the cultivars we were adding. And since I’m not a great record keeper (at least not until I started this blog), he insisted that a permanent marker accompany every new plant. This has turned out to be very helpful.

On the front of the metal marker, I write the species and cultivar of the plant. On the back side, I write where I got the plant and when I planted it. The permanent marking pens we use keep the labels legible for at least ten years, depending on the amount of sunlight they receive. If the plant comes with a plastic label looped around it, I usually attach it to the permanent marker. It helps me avoid running over the little newbies when I’m riding around on the lawn tractor.

Coincidentally, the latest edition (November/December) of The American Gardener magazine features a great piece on Witch Hazels. The photographs that accompany the article wonderfully illustrate the visual impact a mature blooming specimen can have in a winter-bare landscape. I highly recommend that you find this article; it’s worth it just for the pictures.

Witch Hazels grow best where soils remain relatively moist. I planted mine at the base of the hill on the north-facing side of my yard. Judging by the health of Aurora, I think I’ve sited my Witch Hazels well. As they grow into mature specimens, I’m expecting that they will light up my winter landscape with color and gentle fragrance. What better way to lead us into the abundance of spring?

 

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