NC Cooperative Extension

Witch Hazel For Your Winter Landscape


NC Cooperative Extension, Gaston County

As we inch on into the heart of winter here's a hint of
spring that is often overlooked.  If you
have ever been in a garden in mid-winter and come across a wonderful fragrance
that calls your attention and entices you to approach the garden in which it is
growing, you know the plant I am talking about. 
The plant with such a nice fragrance is witch hazel.  This shrub gives an excellent refreshment to
the garden when many gardens at this time of year have little to offer in color
and scent.  The name witch hazel probably
originated from the early settler's practice of using the forked branches of
the witch hazels for dousing, or water divining.

Plant Characteristics

The witch hazels are a group of deciduous, multi-stemmed
shrubs covered in winter with unique yellow, gold, orange and red flowers.  The elegantly diminutive blooms are only 1/2
to 3/4 inches in diameter with four narrow, strap like petals.  In spite of their small size, the flowers
create a wonderful heady scent.

There are many types of witch hazel which can be grouped
somewhat by the time that they flower.  Common
witch hazel and Southern witch hazel bloom in the fall, while others flower in
late winter or early spring.  The latter
include Vernal witch hazel, Chinese witch hazel, Japanese witch hazel, and a
group of many hybrid cultivars resulting from crosses between the Chinese and
Japanese witch hazels.  All of them are
loosely spreading shrubs with an open habit. 
They will generally grow anywhere from 6 – 15 feet tall, depending on
the type, and will spread as wide.

The foliage is not so showy during the summer period but as
fall approaches, the foliage will put on an excellent display.  The color most identified with witch hazel is
a beautiful yellow with hints of purple and red.

Soil, Moisture, & Light Preferences

Witch hazels will perform best in moist soils and a little
light shade.  They will tolerate full sun
and put on a nice display, but they are at their best in light shade.  An excellent location would be to plant them
along a woodland's edge where afternoon sun can bring them to full splendor.  Also, they need to be set near the walking
path, so that their blooms can be visually pleasing as well as fragrantly

Witch Hazel Varieties

One of the most widely grown and popular cultivars is
'Arnold Promise'.  It is late blooming
with large, showy yellow flowers.  Of the
many types and cultivars of witch hazels, the North Carolina State University
Arboretum recommends two varieties. 
'Primavera' has large, exceptionally sweet-scented, soft yellow flowers,
and blooms prolifically in early spring. 
'Sunburst' flowers abundantly very early, in late January, with lovely,
lemon-yellow flowers.  Note that
'Sunburst's' flowers are scentless. Both of these witch hazels can be found in
selected mail order catalogs if you can not locate them at one of the local
garden centers/nurseries.  Early
spring-blooming witch hazels make beautiful additions to the late winter or
early spring landscape.  Their delightful
fragrance and interesting flowers so far have been under used, yet these shrubs
could be grown in so many sites that would be transformed by the addition of
just this kind of plant.

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