A shrub that flowers in winter? That sounds unlikely but witch hazels do just that - even in Iowa!
Witch hazels (Hamamelis) are a group of shrubs that typically have the first (or last) blooms of the season in the landscape. The native common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from mid-October to early December. Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), also native, flowers from early February to late March. The hybrid witch hazel (Hamamelis × intermedia) also does well in Iowa and flowers in late winter typically from early February to late March.
Witch hazel flowers consist of four, strap-like petals which curl up on cold days and unfurl in warm weather. Flowers are long-lasting and often quite fragrant with a clean, earthy, and spicy scent. It is common to see flowers while there is still snow on the ground! The flowers of common witch hazel are yellow and vernal witch hazel flowers vary from yellow to brownish red. Hybrid witch hazel has flowers that can range in color from yellow to orange to red to purple (depending on the cultivar).
Grow witch hazels in part-shade to full sun. In their native settings, shrubs commonly grow at the lightly shaded edge of a woodland. Shrubs are large, often 10+ feet tall and wide and when grown in part-shade will be more open in branching and habit. Those grown in full sun will have more flowers and a more compact habit. While part-shade is great, witch hazel does not grow or bloom well in full shade.
Witch hazels grow best in moist, well-drained soils. Avoid wet, poorly drained sites and dry locations. Shrubs tolerate a wide range of soil pH fairly well including the slightly alkaline soils commonly found across Iowa. A 2- to 4-inch layer of mulch, such as shredded bark, around the base of the plant is particularly beneficial as it moderates soil moisture levels. As with many shrubs, regular fertilization is not essential, but if needed, fertilize shrubs with a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer in spring before leaves emerge.
Pruning is not frequently needed. Remove dead or crossing branches in late winter/early spring. Remove branches from their point of origin and suckers at their base to help retain the natural form of the plant. Shrubs will get large over time, especially those grown in more shade. Give shrubs plenty of room to spread out so you don't have to prune to maintain a smaller size. Some hybrid witch hazels are grafted using common witch hazel as a rootstock so removing suckers from the base of the shrub when they appear is beneficial to keep the original cultivar from being overtaken by the rootstock.
Most gardeners have the best luck planting containerized plants, but bare root is also possible. Plant as early in the season as possible and provide consistent moisture throughout the first couple of growing seasons.
Established witch hazels do not like to be disturbed. Transplant only if absolutely necessary in early spring before the new growth begins. If new plants are wanted on a different site, it's best to purchase new plants rather than try to dig up an established plant.
Witch hazels have few insect and disease pests. The few issues that occasionally arise, such as powdery mildew and galls, are cosmetic and do not threaten the health of the plant so treatment is not typically needed.
The bright yellow flowers look particularly bright and cheery against the snow-covered landscape or in front of a dark wall or evergreen backdrop. In most years, the yellow fall color (and for some hybrids red, purple, or orange) give the plant multi-season interest. The large size makes the perfect for the back of the border and since they bloom so early, the flowers take center stage even from the back row. The native vernal and common witch hazels are excellent plants for naturalized woodland sites. Shrubs make excellent unpruned screens and hedges.
Forcing and Cut Stems
Branches collected just as the flowers begin to open are great additions to floral arrangements to add structure, color, and fragrance. The branches are particularly well-suited for sparse arrangments such as those done in the Ikebana style.
Dormant branches can be forced into bloom indoors in mid-winter. More information can be found in this article: How do you force branches of spring-flowering trees and shrubs indoors?
Propagation of witch hazel is not always easy for the home gardener. In most cases, it is best to buy plants from the local garden center.
DIg suckers from the base of the plant in very early spring as soon as the soil can be worked before new growth emerges. Take care to disturb as little of the root system of the parent plant as possible. Plant the suckers immediately in their new location. Suckers from grafted hybrid witch hazels may not look like the parent plant if suckers from the rootstock are propagated rather than the desired cultivar.
Witch hazel can be propagated by softwood cuttings, but plants are notoriously difficult to root. This method of propagation is not recommended for the average home gardener.
Capsules pop open in early to mid-fall scattering the seed many feet from the parent plant. Collect seed from mature pods before they open. Seed has a double dormancy requiring 60-90 days of room temperature (60°F) followed by 90-120 days of cool temperatures (40°F). Sow collected seed in moist peat before starting the stratification (temperature) regime. Germination usually occurs within a year. Overall the process is complicated and has limited success for most home gardeners.
Common witch hazel blooms from mid-October to early December. The spectacular yellow fall color has only one drawback - it often coincides with the bloom and can mask the beautiful fragrant yellow flowers. Shrubs are large (20 feet tall and wide) and irregularly rounded in shape. Plants are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 8. Sometimes plants can be pruned into small trees by removing suckers and lower branches allowing only a few main branches to fully develop. If a tree form is desired, start shaping early in the plant's development.
Notable common witch hazel cultivars include:
- ‘Harvest Moon’ (lemon yellow flowers, vase-shaped habit, grows 15 to 20 feet tall)
- ‘Little Suzie’ (soft yellow flowers, 4 to 6 feet tall)
Vernal witch hazel flower from early February to late March. the ribbon or strap-shaped petals vary from yellow to brownish red. Vernal witch hazel may eventually attain a height of 10 feet. Shrubs are dense and sucker to form a thicket over time. The yellow fall color is exceptional. A few cultivars, such as 'Autumn Embers' feature fall colors other than yellow including orange to burgundy red. Vernal witch hazel is hardy in USDA Hardiness zones 4 to 8.
Attractive vernal witch hazel cultivars include:
- ‘Autumn Embers’ (copper-red flowers, 8 to 10 feet tall)
- ‘Amethyst’ (reddish purple flowers, 6 to 8 feet tall)
- ‘Carnea’ (burgundy red flowers, 6 to 8 feet tall)
Hybrid witch hazels are the result of the cross between two Asian species, Japanese and Chinese witch hazels (H. japonica × H. mollis), and flower from early February to late March. The flowers range in color from yellow to orange to red to purple (depending on the cultivar) and dozens of cultivars exist most selected for their showy flowers and notable fall color. Flowers tend to not be as fragrant as the other witch hazels but still have a mild, spicy fragrance. Fall colors vary by cultivar often turning shades of yellow and orange and sometimes a nice red. Shrubs are upright and open and range in height from 8 to 15+ feet tall with most growing to around 12 feet in height. Hybrid witch hazel is hardy in much of Iowa in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.
Popular hybrid witch hazel cultivars include:
- ‘Arnold Promise’ (bright yellow flowers, yellow, orange, and reddish fall color, 12 to 15 feet tall)
- ‘Diane’ (copper red flowers, fall foliage yellow, orange, to red, 8 to 12 feet tall)
- ‘Jelena’ (coppery orange flowers, fall color orange-red, 8 to 12 feet tall)
- 'Pallida' (pale yellow flowers, yellow-orange fall color, 9 to 12 feet tall)
- 'Ruby Glow' (copper-red flowers changing to reddish-brown, reddish fall color, 15 feet tall)