My father’s birthday falls during the last week of February, and it’s a rare year indeed when I can’t go out to the garden to cut some witchhazel branches for the dining room table. More than a month before the forsythias have even thought about bursting their buds, my ‘Pallida’ witchhazel is blooming its head off, its ribbons of sweetly scented bright yellow flowers sparkling defiantly against the snow.
Inexplicably overlooked by many gardeners, witchhazels (Hamamelis spp. and cvs.) are the first plants to bloom in my late winter garden, and to me are worth their weight in gold for that reason alone. Apart from some early hellebores – which I often find flowering under the snow – it’s my witchhazels that persuade me that winter is beginning to loosen its icy grip.
'Jelena' Photography by Joshua McCullough
Plant profile: Witchhazel
The genus Hamamelis contains just six species of shrubs or small trees, two of which are native to North America. But from a gardener’s viewpoint, the most important witchhazels are the result of crosses between the Japanese H. japonica and the Chinese H. mollis, which are now known as H. ×intermedia. First described in 1945 from plants growing at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, depending where you live in Canada these new witchhazels may be in flower anytime from January to March, ushering in the new growing season with considerable panache.
Today, ‘Jelena’ (above) is deservedly one of the best cultivars. it has such a warm, coppery orange colour that on cold days you feel you could warm your hands against its flowers.
'Arnold Promise' Photography by Laura Berman
First natural crosses
Despite the parent species being Asian, and the first natural crosses (e.g., ‘Arnold Promise’, shown above) having been discovered in the U.S., most of the breeding and hybridizing of H.×intermedia cultivars took place in post-war Europe. In 1952, Robert de Belder (1921-95) took over the dilapidated, war-ravaged Kalmthout Arboretum (Antwerp, Belgium), and two years later married talented Slovenian agronomist Jelena Kovačić (1925-2003). Over the course of the next 40 years they bred and introduced dozens of dazzling witchhazel cultivars that remain market leaders today.
'Diane' Photography by Laura Berman
Second in importance only to the de Belders was Heinrich Bruns, who opened a nursery in Westerstede, northwest Germany (near the Dutch border) in 1934. After the war, he raised hundreds of witchhazels from seed and distributed stock of the best 40 or so to other local nurseries. The region quickly became a mecca for witchhazel hybridizers, and many worthy cultivars that were bred by Bruns and neighbouring nurserymen like H.A. Hesse are still widely available.
'Orange Beauty' photography by Joshua McCullough
In North America, there are currently only two active witchhazel breeding programs: one at the U.S. National Arboretum (Washington, D.C.) and the other at the Holden Arboretum (Kirtland, Ohio). Present day goals include developing cultivars that can easily be propagated from cuttings or through tissue culture (at the moment, most cultivars are grafted onto vigorous H. virginiana rootstock). Other objectives include witchhazels with golden or purple foliage and purple or white flowers, so the future is looking bright and colourful for these invaluable harbingers of spring.
Follow these steps to properly care for your witchhazel.
1 Site plants in sun or part-shade in rich, well-drained soil; after planting, mulch with compost, leaf mould or shredded leaves.
2 Prune after flowering to maintain a dense, bushy shape (most flower buds develop on new wood).
3 Water during summer droughts to ensure flower quality and quantity the following year.
4 Largely free of pests, powdery mildew may appear in warmer zones; treat using organic control methods.
Our favourite cultivars
Common & botanical name: ‘Arnold Promise’ witchhazel (Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’)
H x W (cm) 3 x 2.5
Description: Bears fragrant lemon-yellow flowers with 1.8-cm-long petals on a vase-shaped shrub; autumn foliage turns gold, orange and red
Notes: The first recorded hybrid between H. japonica and H. mollis, raised at the Arnold Arboretum (Massachusetts) in 1929, but not introduced until 1963. Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, 2006
Common & botanical name: ‘Diane’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Diane’)
H x W (cm) 2.5 x 3
Description: Bears lightly fragrant red flowers with claret bases and 2-cm-long petals on a bushy shrub; autumn foliage turns maroon, crimson and orange
Notes: One of the best reds, ‘Diane’ was selected at the Kalmthout Arboretum (Antwerp, Belgium) by Robert de Belder and named after his daughter; introduced in 1969. RHS AGM, 2006
Common & botanical name: ‘Feuerzauber’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Feuerzauber’ syn. Magic Fire)
H x W (cm) 3.5 x 3.5
Description: Bears faintly fragrant copper-orange flowers with 2.3-cm-long petals on a vase-shaped shrub; autumn foliage turns orange-red
Notes: Immature plants have a vigorous, upright habit that spreads with age; selected, named and introduced by H.A. Hesse (Weener, Germany) in 1958
Common & botanical name: ‘Jelena’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Jelena’ syn. Copper Beauty)
H x W (cm) 4 x 4
Description: Bears unscented red flowers with yellow-ochre tips and 2.4-cm-long petals, giving a warm, copper-orange effect on a vase-shaped shrub; autumn foliage turns gold through red
Notes: Raised by agricultural engineer Antoine Kort (who founded Kalmthout in 1902), this selection was named by Robert de Belder after his wife and introduced in 1954. RHS AGM, 2006
Common & botanical name: ‘Orange Beauty’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Orange Beauty’)
H x W (cm) 3 x 4
Description: Bears fragrant yellow-orange flowers with purple bases and 2.2-cm-long petals for a fiery orange effect on a bushy shrub; autumn foliage turns gold and orange
Notes: Selected by Heinrich Bruns at his Westerstede (Germany) nursery in 1955, and introduced 10 years later by Vuyk van Nes Nurseries (Boskoop, Netherlands)
Common & botanical name: ‘Pallida’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Pallida’)
H x W (cm) 3 x 3
Description: Bears fragrant sulphur-yellow flowers with 2.5-cm-long petals on a spreading, bushy shrub; autumn foliage turns gold
Notes: Discovered as a chance seedling at the RHS Wisley gardens (Surrey, U.K.); introduced in 1958. Considered the gold standard against which all other H. ×intermedia cultivars are judged. RHS AGM, 2005
Common & botanical name: ‘Westerstede’ witchhazel (H. ×i. ‘Westerstede’)
H x W (cm) 3.5 x 2.5
Description: Bears faintly fragrant primrose-yellow flowers with 1.5-cm-long petals on a vigorous, upright shrub; autumn foliage turns gold
Notes: Raised by Heinrich Bruns and named after the town where his nursery was located; introduced in 1977. Similar to ‘Arnold Promise’ but with better mildew resistance in Zones 7 and 8
Common & botanical name: Ozark (or Vernal) witchhazel (H. vernalis)
H x W (cm) 2.5 x 3
Description: Bears highly fragrant yellow to red flowers with 1.2-cm-long petals on a multi-stemmed shrub with a rounded habit; autumn foliage turns gold
Notes: In cultivation since 1908 and native to the Ozark Plateau (Missouri to Louisiana and Oklahoma); keep an eye out for the graceful, orange-flowered H. v. ‘Lombart’s Weeping’ (syn. Pendula)