Witch hazel shrubs do bloom in winter

By Merabeth Steffen

OSU Ext. master gardener volunteer

When I visited a local garden center last February to purchase birdfeed, I was pleasantly surprised to see a display of flowering shrubs in front of their building. I have planting beds full of impulse purchases, so before I was even out of the car, I knew I was in trouble again. The difficulty would be in choosing between the yellow, copper or amethyst blooming plants. It was an unusually warm February so planting would not be a problem.

The shrubs on display were witch hazels, and yes, some of them do bloom in winter.

Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a native shrub found in the under-story of well-shaded forests throughout the eastern and midwestern U.S., hardy to zone 3. It tolerates a wide range of both light and moisture and has a slow, steady rate of growth, sometimes reaching a height of 25 feet. It produces its bright yellow flowers in autumn.

Cultivars of common witch hazel include ‘Harvest Moon’ (15 to 20 feet, lemon yellow flowers) and “Little Susie” (4 to 6 feet, soft yellow bloom).

Vernal witch hazels (H. vernalis) are native to the Midwest and smaller than the common, maturing at a height of 6 to 10 feet. The biggest difference is bloom time, which is usually late winter or early spring. The flowers are bright yellow with a darker orange to red calyx at their base. They are hardy to zone 4.

Cultivars of vernal witch hazel include “Autumn Embers” (8 to 10 feet, copper red flowers) and “Amethyst” (reddish purple flowers, 6 to 8 feet).

The hybrid witch hazels, Hamamelis x Intermedia, are crosses between Chinese and Japanese witch hazels showing desirable characteristics of each parent species. They can provide the gardener with color and fragrance from January through March. Flower blooms range from yellows and oranges to red and purple, and the color of their fall foliage seems to match the color of their bloom. These are adaptable to zones 5 through 8.

“Jelena” (8 to 12 feet, coppery orange flowers) and “Arnold Promise” (12 to 15 feet, bright yellow bloom) are cultivars of intermedia witch hazels.

Witch hazels are worth considering as an addition to the four-season landscape. They have few disease and insect pests, and are not particularly attractive to deer.

As for my impulse purchase, it is H. x Intermedia “Chris,” and the buds are set for a February bloom.

To see photos and for more information, visit http://go.osu.edu/witchhazel.

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