Bewitching Witchhazels

Yes, I know, spring is just around the corner – but those of us in the mid-Atlantic region of the eastern U.S. aren’t quite there yet. Still, there is some excitement to be had in the garden these days, especially if you are fortunate enough to have somewhere in your landscape a witchhazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). These shrubs usually grow about 12-15′ high and have a wide spread at maturity. Their strap-like, twisted petals are a sight for sore eyes in winter.

Hamamelis x intermedia, Dumbarton Oaks, winter shrubs

A witchhazel in flower at Dumbarton Oaks in early March. I'm not sure, but I think its a Jelena.

As I wrote when I first began this blog, it was the sight of a ‘Jelena’ witchhazel in bloom at the National Arboretum, many years ago, which helped spark my interest in garden photography. But when it comes to planting them, it’s hard to choose a favorite. All of them provide welcome color at the end of winter, when a gardener’s soul – and eyes – are eager for spring to arrive. The petals, which appear on bare stems, are lightly fragrant. And there’s even a bonus, in the fall, of beautifully colored foliage.

Do you like yellows? I saw two specimens at Dumbarton, close by each other (not far from the Orangerie), that were equally lovely. Thanks to a little sleuthing by my work colleague, Abby Yager, I’m able to identify them for you.
The first one is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise,’ with a rich golden yellow color. This is a favorite for landscape designers since it’s quite vigorous and reliable; it was developed at the Arnold Arboretum.  This particular specimen, according to Dumbarton Oaks, was grafted onto  H. virginiana rootstock.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise,' Dumbarton Oaks

Hamamelis x intermedia Arnold Promise, at Dumbarton Oaks (grated onto H. virginiana rootstock)

Prefer something a bit paler? Here’s Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Angelly.’ Its pale yellow flowers really stand out against a dark evergreen background.

Hamamelis x 'Angelly', Dumbarton Oaks

Angelly witchhazel at Dumbarton Oaks in March

According to what I’ve been able to learn, ‘Angelly’ is a more upright-shaped witchhazel that blooms relatively late in the season. Around here, you see most witchhazels in bloom in  late February into early March. There is another species, H. mollis, which blooms in late fall.

New cultivars are developed regularly. But sometimes if you dig a little into history, you learn something fascinating and sweet about the old tried-and-true cultivars. According to Wikipedia, Jelena and Robert de Belder of Arboretum Kalmthout, selecting for red cultivars, found three: the first, with bronze flowers, was named ‘Jelena’; the next, with red flowers, was named ‘Diane’ (the name of their daughter); the last, with deep red flowers, was called ‘Livia’ (the name of their granddaughter). Nothing like keeping it in the family. Now I just need to find space for one in my own garden.

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6 Comments on “Bewitching Witchhazels”

  1. Laurrie Says:

    I am so in love with witch hazels and your shots remind me why. And the mature specimens I have seen are incredible and scented and so welcome in late winter. But my own, three years on in my garden, refuse to bloom:’Diane’ plus an unnamed vernalis have the itsiest teensiest little nubs of flowers that do not unfurl even on warm days. Plus they hold on to last year’s brown leaves which looks ratty. I really hope they are just slow to get going, and will improve with age!

    • Nadine Says:

      I live in France and I have a similar problem this year re. flowers and leaves. Mine sheds its leaves most years, but some years, the dry leaves stay on the tree, and the flowers are exactly as you describe them. I prune mine every year because although it’s doing very well (facing East-Southeast), it’s very poorly located in front of the house, and I fear it’s too old to be moved now (more than 25 yrs for sure). This doesn’t stop it from doing what it’s supposed to do, but not every single year. In fall, it’s simply gorgeous.

      • Melissa Says:

        First of all, thank you for writing – I love hearing from gardeners outside the US. And I appreciate the comment about fall color, as I’ve been less than good about photographing witchhazels in the autumn. I wish I had some good suggestions about the problems with leaves hanging on. But your sounds like a real keeper, and I love the thought of its being in Paris – which I hope to visit with my sons this summer.

  2. Melissa Says:

    Laurrie, I remember years ago attending a plant symposium which included a talk on witchhazels. The speaker had put together a list of which cultivars tended to hang onto their leaves into the new year (not, as you have observed, a pretty sight). I remember thinking there were a LOT of named cultivars in that category. I’ll bet the staff at Dumbarton Oaks grooms theirs to get rid of any hanging leaves before they bloom.
    I do think these plants need a decent amount of sun. Could that be the issue behind yours taking a while to bloom?

  3. John Says:

    Melissa, let me give an endorsement to ‘Diane’. It blooms nicely for me in a pretty sunny location. My specimen is still small, only one year in the ground (last year it was still in a pot), but it was covered with the red straps that pass for blossoms in the Witch Hazel world. At that time of year, the Witch Hazels have the stage all to themselves (with the possible exception of snowdrops…).


  4. If I had space I would go for one of the orange forms, but this time would make sure I planted it where the sun would shine through the petals – I had one where this never happened, and actually it was a very nondescript plant, even in flower. In my small garden it just didn’t earn its keep. One day though…


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