01 March 2009
Jodi's Gotta-Have Plants, Pt. 2: Which Witch(hazel) is Which?
March has come in, not like a lion or a lamb; just a grey, nondescript day. But that puts us almost halfway through FARCH, and that's reason enough to celebrate by talking about favourite plants.
Some years back, my longsufferings spouse and I were traipsing through Pine Grove, a marvelous park established and maintained by Bowater Mersey in Milton, near Liverpool on Nova Scotia’s south shore. We were coming across a clearing when I caught a fragrance on the air, sweet as honey. We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from until I discovered a modest shrub, leafless of course, but festooned in these spidery flowers with stringy petals of orangish-gold. It was a witchhazel, of course, and there began my love affair with these easy-care, handsome shrubs.
(photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Witchhazel belongs to the genus Hamemelis, and there are five species native in North America, with only one, H. virginiana, being native in eastern Canada. It’s considered a shrub, generally ranging from 15-20 feet in height and spread. What’s interesting about the native species is that it flowers in autumn, generally between October and December, with stringy-petalled flowers that are generally yellow but occasionally tinted with red or orange. The petals look like crumpled streamers of crepe-paper, and while they aren’t beautiful, they usually have a lovely fragrance.
Hamamelis mollis is the Chinese witchhazel, and said to be the most fragrant species. It’s much used in gardening and landscaping in milder climates but generally isn’t hardy below-15 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point bud damage can occur. Sadly, I don't remember where I got this photo or what cultivar this might be.
Where H. mollis comes in handy is as a cross with the Japanese witchhazel, H. japonica, resulting in hybrids generally classified as H. x intermedia. These tend to flower in mid-late winter or early spring, depending on where you are and how buried in snow your plants get. Some of the more spectacular flower colours are in the Intermedia hybrids, including 'Ruby Glow' (above photo);
'Jelena' is also sometimes labeled as 'Copper Beauty'. I haven't gotten my mitts on one of these yet, in part because I find them regularly priced much higher than you might expect. And of course in containers, they flower early in the season, often before garden centres even put their stock out, so you have to be prepared to live for a year or so without flower display, at least in my cool neck of the woods.
The first one I plan to purchase this year is 'Arnold Promise', and part of the reason for that is the foliage colour in new growth, seen here on a plant from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College Rock Garden in Truro, NS.
The flowers are yellow and can be very profuse, and according to the good people at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the fragrance is quite wonderful. I know scent can be highly personal, but I am very fond of the scent of witchhazels and would happily have them everywhere in our garden.
Witchhazels make fine specimen plants and provide us with four season interest; the Intermedia hybrids flower from winter into spring, summer foliage is handsome, and fall colour can be spectacular. Most importantly, witchhazels are easy-care shrubs, seldom bothered by diseases or insects, and requiring minimal pruning other than to remove suckers if you don’t want your plants to spread or if they are grafted onto hardier rootstock.
My witchhazel is 'Diane' (seen flowering in the top photo) and she has routinely been buried in snow this winter, and even had one session of being encased in ice earlier in the winter.
While others are already enjoying their witchhazels in bloom, I have yet to even find Diane, although she is slowly emerging from snow after the melt we had on Friday and yesterday. But that just means I get to enjoy other gardeners' plants until mine is ready to flower.
Which will happen one of these days. Spring does always come.