A chill wind blows through the cold and barren garden as I make my way back to the house amid small mounds of left-over ice and snow. Here and there the tip of an occasional snowdrop can be seen trying to force its way upwards through the frozen earth; other than the evergreens, all seems dead and dreary. I’m about to turn back to the warmth and comfort of the welcoming hearth, when on the chill breeze I catch a whiff of a wonderfully sweet scent, redolent with the promise of the spring, emanating from the cloud of yellow that’s suddenly appeared only hours before. The source is a shrub, almost a small tree, covered in the most unusual pompom-like flowers, as if some crazed caterer had appeared magically overnight and attached thousands of little party favors to the branches. On the ragged tail of winter, here stands the promise of spring – the witch-hazel.
The witch-hazels are not a large family, and perhaps this is one of the reasons for the clan’s low profile in our landscapes. Native to North America and parts of Asia, the first member to come to prominence in the garden was the American variety, discovered growing wild in the eastern woodlands early in the 1700’s. Brought to England in 1736, it was immediately prized, not for its flowers, which are rather small, but for its unique season of bloom — it is the very last plant to flower in the garden, often opening into December. (Hence the Colonial nickname Epiphany Tree) Native Americans however had long valued the shrub for other reasons: they were the first to understand that the inner bark had astringent qualities, and used witch-hazel as an effective cure for various inflammations of the skin and eyes. It is still an ingredient in many commercial cosmetic preparations today.
How the witch-hazel received its name, both the botanical and vernacular, is something of a mystery. The former, Hamamelis, comes from the Greek meaning “together with the apple”, and was the classical name for an entirely different shrub or tree that has never been identified with any certainty. It is thought to have become associated with H. virginiana, the American or Common witch-hazel, because the plant carries its small seed-like fruit for twelve months, so that last year’s crop appears together with the current year’s flowers. As for the common name, some have suggested that “witch-hazel” derives from its supposed use by early American settlers in the practice of divining water, as had done with the English hazel. Another possibility is that “witch” is actually a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon wice, which means plaint or supple. Personally, none of these derivations seem to me to hold much water, if you’ll pardon the pun, and its quite likely that truth behind the name, like that of so many other plants, will remain buried in time.
Whatever the origin of the name, H. virginiana was the only witch-hazel in cultivation until the 1860’s, when several new species were discovered in Asia. Of all these Oriental cousins, H. mollis, the Chinese witch-hazel, proved to be the most valuable. The first specimen was actually collected in 1879 near Kiukiang, China and sent to a nursery in England, where it languished misidentified for over 20 years. It wasn’t 1900 that the director of the Royal Gardens at Kew, making a tour of the place, recognized the shrub as a new and potentially useful landscape species: the flowers of H. mollis are larger and far more fragrant that those its American cousin, and bloom later – in the very dead of winter. In fact, the blossoms have an effect that is quite unique in the horticultural world. The small flowers, which really do look like those streamers on a party horn, unroll themselves and expand on sunny winter days when the temperature rises above freezing. Come night and cold, the flowers quickly curl up again, only to reopen when conditions are once more sympathetic. This dramatic show can go on for weeks or months – depending on the variable nature of winter weather – and I find this to be one of the most extraordinary and entertaining dramas of the early gardening year.
Given the witch-hazels exceptional qualities, there has been considerable interest, especially abroad, in breeding new hybrids, and recently a number of these have come to the market, some with reddish flowers, others closer to white, and still others with more extended periods of bloom. Interestingly many of these new introductions are crosses between the Chinese and Japanese witch-hazels, which are then grafted onto the rootstock of the American variety, making for a truly international plant! Whatever the source, all witch-hazels prefer well drained, fertile soil, slightly on the acid side, and are hardy from Zones 5-8. Some, especially the American variety, can tolerate light shade, and make good under-story plantings. Left to themselves, most varieties will form a large mounded shrub, growing ultimately to 15-30 feet high. Pruned to a single stem however, they make delightful small trees, and to me at least, are more effective this way in the landscape. Whichever way you choose to shape your specimen, try to locate it against a dark background: The blossoms take on an almost theatrical effect when seen silhouetted against the uniform darkness of a massing of yews, a fence or barn wall. And be sure to place the plant where you will be certain to pass close-by. Very few gardening experiences are as sublime, or as sublimely easy to achieve, as the celestial scent of witch-hazel on a cold winter’s day.
Note: most nurseries stock several basic witch-hazels, but the connoisseur will want to check out a specialty nursery. One of my favorites is Forest Farm.
Until next time, I’m Michael Weishan, for Old House, Old Garden.