The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Witchhazels – Rebels in the garden

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Witches are everywhere this time of year including our landscape. Witchhazels include several species of large shrubs. They were apparently named after their leaves resemblance to hazel leaves and that the branches, like hazel, have been used as divining rods to find underground water, also called witching water wells. Hazelnuts do not come from witchhazels but from the American, European or Turkish hazel, Corylus sp., also known as filberts.

Many of us have seen a bottle of witchhazel in the back of the bathroom cabinet, but don't know much at all about the plant. Witchhazel is distilled from the bark and roots of the plant.

As garden rebels witchhazels defy traditional flowering. Witchhazels bloom when every other self-respecting plant is either going to sleep or is still snoring through the winter. Great variability exists in flowering times even within species; however, they all bloom either very late or very early in the year. Depending on the species they may bloom in October through November or February through March.

Witchhazel flowers are captivating with their long strap-like petals, often likened to thin strips of crepe paper. If the weather includes ice, cold or snow during flowering, the petals just coil up into a ball. Once the weather warms it's party time again as the crepe paper petals unfurl. This protection mechanism translates into 3-4 weeks of flowering.

Vernal Witchhazel, Hamamelis vernalis, is a multi-stemmed native shrub reaching 10 feet tall. Vernal means spring so this witchhazel may bloom as early as January or as late as March. The fragrant flowers also vary from yellow to orange to red. Unfortunately the flowers are often hidden by the old leaves still hanging on from the previous season. Fall color is a golden yellow. Vernal witchhazel is a tough plant for an informal screen or hedge especially in wet clay soils. 'Autumn Embers' has red purple fall color and orange flowers. 'Christmas Cheer' blooms around Christmas time.

Common Witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is also a native shrub but gets much taller at 20 to 30 feet. Its fragrant yellow flowers appear generally in November, but may bloom as early as mid October or as late as December. Fall color can be a spectacular yellow. Unfortunately sometimes the fall color is present at the same time as the flowers thereby reducing the impact of the fall flowers. Common Witchhazel would be an excellent addition to a naturalized area in full sun or shade.

Hamamelis x intermedia is a hybrid cross between Japanese witchhazel and Chinese witchhazel and offers more ornamental characteristics. As a hybrid it is more upright and can get 15 to 20 feet tall. The number of cultivars of this hybrid are staggering. Most cultivars bloom between January and March and flower colors range from yellow to red.

'Arnold Promise', has been available for a number of years but is still one of the best yellow-flowered cultivars. The lightly fragrant flowers are a bit later than other cultivars blooming from mid February into late March.

'Diane' is one of the best red flowered and red fall colored cultivars.

'Jelena', also known as 'Copper Beauty', lives up to its copper name. From a distance it appears as a copper glow. The flowers are really a progression of red orange and yellow. 'Jelena' as excellent fall color of orange red.

Add pizzazz to an otherwise drab time in the landscape by including the many faces of witchhazels.

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