January 29th, 2012
Winter has certainly come in fits and starts this year in New England, commencing with the horrendous storm of October 29th. Since then, of course, we’ve had little snow until last week, though temperatures have see-sawed. My confused garden doesn’t know how to cope. Several of the Lenten roses (helleborus orientalis) bloomed already, which means I won’t see their pretty purple faces come April. Intermittent, sprightly Johnny-jump-ups appear in the front garden and then retreat. And the witch hazels, those that survived being flattened in the October onslaught, are in bloom right now.
The witch hazels we tend to grow nowadays are hybrids, not the old-fashioned ones known for the soothing lotion they produce in abundance. Witch hazels also were the source of dowsing branches, used by old-timers in faded overalls to search for hidden water. And the term “witch” hazel, you need to know, has nothing to do with Beelzebub and brimstone, but rather comes from the Old English word, wyche.
These plants generally are large, deciduous, vase-shaped shrubs which grow agreeably in half-shade. They possess a short trunk with a cluster of stems arising from the base. There are many types, from the native, Hamamelis virginiana, (which tends to bloom in late fall) to delectable hybrids such as ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Jelena’, and ‘Diane’. The easy-breezy bushes appreciate a neutral soil and will grow to 12’ high, with as wide a spread, depending on cultivar. Witch hazel is noted for its early flowers, (but not generally this early!) joyous color and often alluring scent. It does need room to spread, however, and relishes a place of honor in a large shrub border; as a screen or tall hedge, or at the woods’ edge. I grow mine in my White Pine Garden, accompanied by leucothoe, azalea, hydrangea, oakleaf hydrangea, fothergilla; and underplanted with hosta and heuchera.
‘Arnold Promise’ is the namesake of the Arnold Arboretum outside Boston. Its cheery yellow blossoms are reminiscent of forsythia. ‘Jelena’ bears clusters of coppery-orange flowers. And the fragrance! It wafts over the front yard as I step out to replenish the bird feeders. ‘Diane’ is a newer cultivar who has ruby-red flowers and significant late-season color of yellow, orange and red displayed simultaneously on autumn leaves.
These cultivars all lend themselves well to forcing right about now. Simply clip some branches and plunge them into a vase of water. Place in a cool area of your home, out of direct sunlight. Within a few days you’ll be favored with lively colors and delicious scent. A true harbinger of spring.
Witch hazel has no serious disease or pest issues, and is fairly deer-resistant, (though I apply my pungent repellent, just in case). It bears broad oval green leaves up to 6” long, often with vibrant fall color. The blossoms, early as they are, last for several weeks, but if the weather turns frigid, it’ll hunker down, retract its merry petals and wait for more clement days.
Old Man Winter has been erratic this year, but it’s only another seven weeks until Spring. I think we gardeners can take anything the old guy dishes out.