This time of year, gardeners are filled with longing for green, but we’ll settle for even a glimpse of growing. We search for the tiniest hint that spring is on the way. If you are impatient, as I am, consider planting a native herb that is an early herald of spring, Hamamelis virginiana, or witch hazel. The famous garden writer, Vita Sackville-West described it thus:
“And the Witch-hazel, Hamamelis mollis,
That comes before its leaf on naked bough,
Torn ribbons frayed, of yellow and maroon
And sharp of scent in frosty English air.”
The Hamamelis mollis of which she speaks is the Chinese witch hazel, brought to England in 1879. It quickly became a popular plant for its fragrant, very early bloom. One of its folk names is “winter bloom.” In the photo at the top, the blooming shrubs on the left and right sides are witch hazels displaying their pale yellow ribbons. Before you wonder, no it’s not my garden, but photos I took one year at the fabulous Philadelphia Flower Show.
Do not be hesitant to include this plant in your garden, wary of the term “witch” because it has nothing to do with wicked, warted crones. In olden days, inexpensive fencing was accomplished by growing dense shrubs and weaving the branches (wyches) together to enclose livestock and keep out intruders. When colonists came to the New World, the growth of the Hamamelis reminded them of that form, which led to its name.
However, if you prefer to think it more magical or related to witches, there are some who thought the plant must have unusual powers because of its seed capsules having the uncanny ability to shoot seeds over twenty feet in mid-autumn. Forked witch hazel branches have also been the traditional choice to use as divining rods or “witching rods” to locate underground water, sometimes called “witching for water.”
The fragrant, ribbony-yellow blooms of witch hazel are some of the earliest to appear, especially if given a sheltered easterly exposure. It can tolerate light shade, and in fact prefers it in drier locations. Ideally it loves a loamy, well-draining soil, neutral to lightly acidic and grows happily in Zones 4-8 (some say 3-9.) Since I have heavy clay, which they don’t fancy, I’ll definitely have to work on soil improvement before planting. The large toothed leaves provide a dappled shade in summer and turn brilliant yellow in autumn. Take care in making a selection for growing, because not all witch hazels are hardy in all zones. Also, some bloom in autumn rather than in late winter, and some have the unfortunate characteristic to bloom while still holding their leaves, which obscures the flowering.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is currently trialing dozens of varieties of witch hazels and invites the public to come see the show these plants put on in February. The plants are in their second year. They will also publish their evaluations on their website, so you can benefit from their data and observations. After their first year analysis, I’m considering “Little Suzie,” “Arnold Promise,” “Sunburst,” and “Sandra” but “Jelena” and “Pallida” might also be in the running, depending upon their performance this year.
An astringent lotion distilled from witch hazel’s bark, twigs and leaves has long been used to soften skin, relieve insect bites, treat varicose veins, bruises and swelling. It makes an excellent alcohol-free skin cleanser and after shave. Leaves can be steeped in boiling water, which is strained used as a foot bath to ease sore feet.
Witch hazel is a relative of the sweet gum tree, and fothergilla shrubs. It is the birthday flower for August 9th, symbolizing changeability, consolation, inspiration and enchantment.
I’ll be searching for various varieties of witch hazels to add to my gardens in the coming months. The internet shows colors ranging from nearly white through yellows and oranges to deep maroon, achieved in many cases by crossing H. mollis and H. virginiana. Hopefully, next winter I’ll have some fragrant ribbon blooms to enjoy.