Hardy, low maintenance, and ignored by most pests, Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) are deciduous shrubs or small trees of great beauty, particularly when their showy, fragrant flowers are on full display. Lasting for weeks, the unusual blossoms feature thin, ribbonlike petals in warm shades of gold, yellow, orange and carmine red.
Depending on the species and cultivars, they can be the latest (October), or earliest (February to March) shrubs to bloom in the garden, with their blossoms emerging while the brown seed capsules from the previous year are still attached to the branches. Clustered along the leafless branches, the flowers unfurl their spidery petals on mild days. But on cold days, they curl up again and nearly close up to prevent damage from freezing temperatures.
While their winter blooms are of primary interest, Witch Hazels can also be showy in the fall when their handsome oval green leaves, sometimes downy on the underside, take on golden-yellow shades before shedding to the ground.
Deer resistant, Witch Hazels are shapely shrubs topping out at 10 to 20 feet (3-6 m), with some spreading nearly as wide.
- Hamamelis virginiana (Common or Virginia Witch Hazel), a North American native, is quite cold-hardy (Zones 3-8) and rich of a sweet and intoxicating fragrance. Blooming in the fall, it creates a spectacular show with its bright yellow flowers on display at the same time as its bright green leaves are turning golden-yellow. It grows with an oval to round form and will reach up to 25 ft (7-8 m).
- Hamamelis mollis (Chinese Witch Hazel), is the most fragrant of all Witch Hazels but is less hardy (Zones 5-8). One of the earliest to flower, it features a profusion of fragrant, bright, yellow flowers with red centers in late winter to very early spring. Its downy, dark green leaves warm up to orange and yellow in fall. Wide-spreading, it grows into a vase-shaped large shrub or small tree, up to 15-20 ft. tall (4.5-6 m).
- Hamamelis x intermedia, is a vigorous and popular hybrid Witch Hazel born from the cross between Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis japonica. These hybrids offer a wider range of flower colors (orange, red, pink, purple, yellow), more compact sizes, and a lovely selection of fall foliage colors which contrast nicely with their bright green summer leaves. They bloom from late winter to very early spring.
- Hamamelis vernalis (Vernal, or Ozark Witch Hazel), a native to Missouri and Arkansas, is renowned for its intensely fragrant, though smaller-sized flowers. Blooming in very early spring, it can form a dense, multi-stemmed colonie by sending out suckers. The medium green leaves turn a striking golden yellow in fall. It is more tolerant of higher pH soils than Hamamelis virginiana and grows well in poorly drained clay soils.
- Hamamelis japonica (Japanese Witch Hazel), a native of the mountainsides of Japan, is noted for its slightly fragrant pale yellow flowers which bloom for up to 4 weeks, attractive green summer foliage and fall colors in shades of yellow, red and purple. Grows with an upright, open, rounded habit, up to 10-15 ft. tall (3-4.5 m).
Full sun to part shade lovers, Witch Hazels are best grown in organically rich, moist, acidic, well-drained soils. They are perfect as specimen plants or massed in mixed shrub borders for dramatic winter blooms. Plant them against a background of dark evergreens, so that the flower clusters lining the bare branches are shown off to best effect. Their upright-spreading shape promotes the underplanting of ground covers or early spring bulbs. Ideal for urban gardens, Witch Hazels tolerate city conditions better than most shrubs.