How to prune witch hazel

Growing & Caring for Witch Hazel

By Janet Loughrey & Michele Owens


Hamamelis mollis (left), H. ×intermedia ‘Orange Beauty’ (right). Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

A large deciduous shrub with colorful, fragrant flowers during the winter, witch hazel is virtually maintenance-free and resistant to most pests and diseases. Witch hazels perform best in full sun (or filtered shade in hotter regions), where the flowers glow like fiery embers in the backlight of the low winter sun. They prefer well-amended soil and regular water and are tolerant of acid or alkaline conditions. Native forms are hardier, while most hybrid cultivars grow in USDA Zones 5-8. A more heat tolerant variety, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, can be grown in Zones 5-9. Once established, they are virtually maintenance-free and resistant to most pests and diseases. Witch hazel extract is commonly used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes.


While most varieties reach 10-20 feet high and wide at maturity, witch hazels can be kept smaller with pruning once they are finished blooming. Prune before summer so that the following year’s buds can develop. Suckering twigs that form around the base should be removed. Once new flower buds appear, branches can be cut and forced to bloom inside.


There are four main types:

(Hamamelis virginiana)

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Zones: 4-8

Mature size: Up to 20’ tall and wide

Bloom time: October to December

These east coast native shrubs or small trees are commonly found in wooded areas from Canada to Georgia. Clusters of citrus-scented petals appear in late fall before the leaves have dropped. Known for its medicinal properties, the bark extract is used as a time-honored remedy for a variety of skin and other bodily ailments.

(Hamamelis vernalis)

Zones: 4-8

Mature size: Up to 10’ tall and 15’ wide

Bloom time: January to April

Native to Missouri and Arkansas, this is the most shrub-like species. Its yellow or red flowers are small, but profuse and appear between January and April.

(Hamamelis japonica)

Zones: 5-8

Mature size: Up to 15’ tall and wide

Bloom time: January to March

The Japanese varieties have showy yellow or red flowers.

(Hamamelis mollis)

Zones: 5-8

Mature size: Up to 15’ tall and wide

Bloom time: January to March

The most fragrant of all species, Chinese varieties begins blooming as early as January and has buttery yellow petals and clear yellow fall foliage.

Hybrids of Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), which bloom from mid-late winter, were bred for enhanced qualities of flowers (larger and better color), intense fragrance and brilliant fall foliage.


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Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Jelena’, widely regarded as one of the best all-around cultivars, has a perfect vase-shaped structure, intensely-fragrant orange flowers and fiery fall color.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Aphrodite’ is a show-stopper, with exceptionally large burnt-orange flowers that bloom profusely in late winter.

Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Diane’ is the standard of red-flowered varieties, with vibrant fall foliage of red, orange, purple and yellow. ‘Diane’ is more heat tolerant than other varieties and can be grown in Zones 5-9.

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Photo by: Janet Loughrey.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Fire Charm’ has scented red-orange flowers and coppery fall color.

Photo by: Hans-Roland Müller / botanikfoto.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Primavera’. Available since 1969, this upright grower blooms from late January into March. Its honey-yellow flowers have a bright, rich scent.

Photo by: Steffen Hauser / botanikfoto.

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Orange Beauty’. Wider than it is high at maturity-12 feet by 10 feet-the Orange Beauty’s deeply pigmented flowers have a strong smell and are deer resistant.

Photo by: Wiert Nieuman / .

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Birgit’. Maximum size is 12 feet wide by 15 feet high. Dark red flowers are smaller than those of other witch hazel varieties and emit a mild fragrance.

Photo by: Wiert Nieuman / .

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Rochester’. Maximum size is nine feet wide by nine feet high. Copper-orange flowers bloom early and give off a strong, spicy scent not unlike that of tuberose.

Photo by: Steffen Hauser / botanikfoto.

Hamamelis mollis ‘Brevipetala’. A vase-shaped upright that can reach 12 feet wide by 12 feet high. Yellow blooms flourish in full sun and can flower from January through March.

Photo by: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / .

Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’. Shrubs grow 20 feet high and are heavy bloomers, producing strongly scented yellow flowers into March.


  • Witch hazels require a winter chill to attain full flowering.
  • They also need summer water.
  • Mulching is beneficial for retaining moisture.


  • Companion plants such as hellebores, winter heath, and bulbs of hardy cyclamen and snowdrop can be naturalized around the base. To extend seasonal interest into summer, smaller forms of clematis such as C. viticella are attractive when trained through the branches.
  • The spidery flowers and heady fragrance are best appreciated when sited near a doorway or well-used pathway.
  • Scott Canning, director of horticulture at Wave Hill, recommends siting them for maximum wintertime drama: put them in a spot where they’ll be backlit in the afternoon and the warm sun will encourage their flowers and scent to unfurl.


Will witch hazel grow in shade?

As natural understory plants, many will do fine in part shade. However, more sun leads to a longer and better bloom. Heavy shade causes leggy growth and lackluster flowers. The ideal growing situation is morning sun, with light shade during the hot afternoon.

Can witch hazel be grown in pots?

In yards with limited space, witch hazels will thrive in containers for many years, though they will eventually need to be planted in the ground. Containers should be kept moist and the roots protected during extreme cold spells.

Is witch hazel deer resistant?

Although not deer resistant, most sources label them as seldom severely damaged. In other words, they aren’t a deer’s favorite food, but they will eat them on occasion. When witch hazels are young, you can protect them with chicken wire and possibly even a deer repellent.

Why is my witch hazel not flowering?

Witch hazels are usually fairly dependable bloomers. However, the weather can change their bloom time, leaving you confused. In addition, those that are too young might not flower, as well as those in deep shade, or those stressed by bugs or disease.


The American Indians first discovered that witch hazel bark, boiled into a tea or mixed with animal fats into a poultice, has therapeutic qualities. A natural astringent, it soothes irritated skin and shrinks inflamed tissues, and is a key component of everything from facial cleansers to pore-tightening products, aftershave lotions, and hemorrhoid pads.

Witch hazel extract has been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes for many years.

In fact, witch hazel extract is said to be the most widely used botanical in the world, outstripping even the ubiquitous aloe. Nonetheless, even the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of witch hazel extracts, American Distilling in East Hampton, Connecticut, relies on wild witch hazel as its raw ingredient for those products. It is harvested sustainably, largely on state lands, by cutters whose families have been involved with the business for generations. Bare twigs and branches are lopped in the cold months, chipped, and then steam-distilled at the factory, where the extract is typically preserved with alcohol. American Distilling is now experimenting with witch hazel perfumes made from the fragrant flowers. But so far, the consensus among those who’ve tried them is that the invigorating scent may be just too powerful to dab on a wrist or the nape of a neck.

Hellebores Offer Late-Winter Blooms
Growing Camellias

Witch Hazel- The Shrub That You Didn’t Know You Needed

Witch Hazel, The Shrub You Didn’t Know You Needed

If you’re ever disappointed that after the last flush of flowers in the fall, very little is thriving to get you through the winter months, despair no longer – there is a plant that blooms from October through December. Hamamelis virginiana- common witch hazel – is sure to be the star of your garden next winter.

Characteristics that Inspire

Witch hazel is a unique plant in that the flowers, ripe fruits, and next year’s leaf buds are present simultaneously. The flowers are cold tolerant and can persist through multiple days of sub-freezing temperatures without issue. These flowers resemble delicate sprays of confetti and are often bright yellow with a red center – turning the entire shrub into a festive ticker-tape parade. These flowers not only offer some winter interest but also have an intoxicating citrus scent that is both surprising and pleasant.

The fruits of witch hazel are small dry capsules that can release seeds up to 30 feet away. Many of the seeds do not survive predation and environmental stress, so there is little concern of having witch hazel take over your landscapes. But, this does make them ideal for hedges and windbreaks as they propagate new plants over time. The capsules you see on your plant in the spring developed from the flowers the previous fall – they need a period of cold to develop fully. You may be familiar with witch hazel extract used for skin care and minor skin irritation. The bark and roots of the witch hazel shrub can be processed to create the extract. If you’re so inclined, there are resources to produce your witch hazel extract. The bark and roots are preferred because they have the highest concentration of tannins, one of the chemical compounds that reduce the inflammation and may contain antibacterial applications.

Conditions for a Perfect Plant

Whether you want to grow your witch hazel for the beautiful seasonal displays or the health benefits, it’s important to know what conditions it prefers for the healthiest plant that will survive for years to come. Witch hazel grows best in full sun to partial shade – for best results; it needs a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight. This shrub can be sensitive to drought conditions, so watering in the summer during establishment is essential. Mulching will also help keep the soil from drying out too quickly in the hot summer months. They do best in loamy acidic soils but have been known to tolerate other conditions with little hassle. However, too much water will drown the shrub, so be sure the soil drains efficiently. Witch hazel grows large, so be sure to have enough room for them. At full maturity, one shrub will range in size from 15 to 30 feet high and spread 15 to 25 feet wide. While this may sound like a broad range, many different cultivars will have different sizes, so be sure to pick which variety best fits in your area. When it comes to management, witch hazel is relatively self-sustaining. It may need light pruning to keep it in a manageable shape. Pruning should be done following bloom, so the flower buds will not be damaged. By pruning later, you’ll get to enjoy the flowers during the winter months. Witch hazel is resistant to many pests and diseases and will tolerate light deer browsing. If deer are an issue in your landscape, protecting your young shrubs is essential, but as the shrub matures, it becomes less of an issue. There is not much that will bother this plant, making it ideal for use in a low-maintenance, easy to take care of landscape. With its multi-seasonal beauty, its herbal uses, and its ease of care, witch hazel is an essential landscape plant you should consider using.

Fast Plant Facts

Common Witch Hazel – Hamamelis virginiana Notable Characteristics: 15-20 foot spread, 15-20 foot height, USDA zones 4-8, Full sun to part shade, Fragrant yellow flowers in the late fall and into the winter, Flowers, fruits and new buds all on the same stem, Resistant to most landscape problems

Pruning Witch Hazel: Does Witch Hazel Need To Be Pruned

Witch hazel is a shrub that can light up your garden in winter. Does witch hazel need to be pruned? It does. For best results, you’ll need to start pruning witch hazel on a regular basis. If you have questions on when or how to prune witch hazel, then we have answers. Read on for information on witch hazel pruning.

Pruning Witch Hazel

If you are looking for a plant to jazz up your garden in winter, witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one to consider. This shrub offers red or yellow blossoms that are both fragrant and abundant all winter long. Winter? Yes, you read that right. Witch hazel flowers when little else blossoms. And talk about easy maintenance! The shrub thrives in ordinary soil without fertilizer. You do, however, have to think about witch hazel pruning.

Witch hazel doesn’t require special treatment in the garden to perform well. But if you want to preserve and accentuate its horizontal growth habit, you’ll need to do regular witch hazel pruning. When to prune witch hazel in this way? You should do this kind of shape pruning just after the plant finishes flowering. Then, in autumn, prune out suckers growing from the base of the shrub.

You’ll want to prune witch hazel back severely if the shrubs are old and need rejuvenation. Prune to rejuvenate them just after flowering.

How to Prune Witch Hazel

If you are pruning witch hazel to shape them, first clip out dead or damaged wood. Prune each branch back to healthy young growth. Trim out any crossing or weak branches.

If you are pruning witch hazel to reduce its size, prune back the prior season’s growth to two buds. Leave as many of the floral buds as possible. They are rounder than the oval leaf buds.

To rejuvenate a witch hazel, first take out all of the suckers at the base of the plant. Once this done, prune the main stems of the witch hazel to 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm.) from the ground. Remove all branches and sprouts that have appeared below the graft. Then trim back branches above it to two buds.

Facts About the Witch Hazel Tree

“Hamamelis mollis ‘Princeton Gold'” is Copyrighted by Flickr user: Tie Guy II (Bob Gutowski) under the Creative Commons Attribution license.

Witch hazel tree, also known as Hamamelis virginiana, is a shrub or tree depending on pruning preference. It is part of the witch hazel family of plants, called Hamamelidaceae.


The witch hazel tree has light brown bark and greenish flowers with yellow ribbons of petals in the autumn, as well as fruits during the same season. Leaves are 4 to 6 inches long. It will reach a maximum height of 20 to 30 feet.


Witch hazel needs a rich soil with a pH of neutral to slightly acidic. It grows best in full sun but can tolerate the shade. It is not drought tolerant.


The witch hazel tree is hardy from Zones 3 (Minnesota and Alaska are examples) to 9 (Texas and Florida are examples). It can survive in temperatures down to 35 degrees below 0 F.


Witch hazel is propagated by seeds, layering or softwood cuttings. In the wild, they germinate from seed more often than other methods.

Fun Facts

Native Americans used witch hazel tree bark to treat sores, tumors and skin ulcers. When boiled, twigs were used for sore muscles, and a tea was used to treat coughs, colds and dysentery.

Hamamelis mollis

  • Attributes: Genus: Hamamelis Species: mollis Family: Hamamelidaceae Uses (Ethnobotany): Has been used as a medicinal plant. The bark and leaves produce a topical astringent. Life Cycle: Woody Recommended Propagation Strategy: Seed Country Or Region Of Origin: Western and west-central China Wildlife Value: Fruit serves as food source for small mammals and birds. Play Value: Attractive Flowers Edible fruit Fragrance Wildlife Food Source Dimensions: Height: 10 ft. 0 in. – 16 ft. 6 in. Width: 10 ft. 0 in. – 20 ft. 0 in.

  • Whole Plant Traits: Plant Type: Shrub Tree Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Habit/Form: Erect Oval Rounded Spreading Growth Rate: Slow Maintenance: Low Texture: Medium
  • Cultural Conditions: Light: Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day) Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day) Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours) Soil Texture: High Organic Matter Soil pH: Acid (<6.0) Soil Drainage: Good Drainage Moist Occasionally Wet NC Region: Coastal Mountains Piedmont Usda Plant Hardiness Zone: 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
  • Fruit: Fruit Color: Black Fruit Value To Gardener: Edible Display/Harvest Time: Fall Fruit Type: Capsule Fruit Description: A two-valved dihiscent capsule.
  • Flowers: Flower Color: Brown/Copper Gold/Yellow Flower Inflorescence: Cyme Flower Value To Gardener: Fragrant Showy Flower Bloom Time: Spring Winter Flower Description: Yellow flowers with red-brown calyx in late winter to early spring; fragrant; strap-shaped petals. Yellow, four strap-like crumpled petals. Inflorescence a cyme in leaf axils.
  • Leaves: Leaf Characteristics: Deciduous Leaf Color: Green Orange Leaf Value To Gardener: Showy Deciduous Leaf Fall Color: Gold/Yellow Orange Leaf Type: Simple Leaf Arrangement: Alternate Leaf Shape: Obovate Ovate Hairs Present: No Leaf Length: 3-6 inches Leaf Description: Alternate, ovate to obovate, toothed, base oblique; leaf buds pubescent.
  • Stem: Stem Is Aromatic: No Stem Description: Young stems zig-zag, pubescent; older glabrous, smooth.
  • Landscape: Landscape Location: Recreational Play Area Woodland Landscape Theme: Children’s Garden Edible Garden Winter Garden Design Feature: Border Specimen Attracts: Small Mammals Songbirds Resistance To Challenges: Deer

The vase-like shape of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’. Photographs courtesy Greer Gardens

Imagine walking into your garden on a frosty midwinter morning. The sun is just peeking through the overhanging branches of a magnolia. You come across a small tree, barren of leaves but possessing a great multitude of curious golden yellow tufts. As the sun illuminates these tiny fists, suddenly wispy fingers unfurl in response to the new warmth: the shrub’s spidery flowers burst forth along the branches like tiny sulfur flames. Then your olfactory senses are treated to an intoxicating citrus scent. A smile crosses your face. Just maybe, you think, immersed in the sublime winter luminosity of a witch hazel, spring is not that far off.

What distinguishes witch hazels in the plant world is that flowers, fruits, and next year’s leaf buds can manifest simultaneously on the plants; indeed, the generic name Hamamelis translates as “together with fruit.” Some witch hazels put on a fall color show, their foliage aging from butter yellow to orange, finally turning scarlet before falling exhausted to the ground. The climax to this show comes with the fruit: two-parted capsules, each about a half inch long and containing a single glossy black seed, split open with such explosive force that seeds land as much as thirty feet away.

The sheer diversity, beauty, and all-season appeal of witch hazels have put them near the top of the list of valuable garden shrubs. Although witch hazel cultivars, especially those derived from the two American species, are more common on the East Coast, they have become increasingly popular among West Coast landscape professionals. As has been the case with other genera, this rise in popularity has resulted from the successful introduction of hybrid selections.

A Japanese Species

The genus Hamamelis is comprised of four species, two native to the United States and one each from China and Japan. Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica) was first introduced to Europe by Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German doctor and naturalist. Joining the Dutch East India Company as a physician naturalist, he made his first trip to Japan in 1822. His status as a doctor gave him rare access to the country and allowed him to collect many indigenous plants, including H. japonica. Though he described the species in his 1843 publication Florae Japonicae, it was not until 1863 that he offered it for sale in the Netherlands.

The Japanese name for witch hazel is mansaku, translated as “rich crop” in reference to folklore that posited that, when flowers appeared in great number, abundant crop harvests would follow. The name has also been translated as “earliest flowering” and “early in the valley.” Japanese villagers use the flexible branches to make rafts, baskets, and shelves. Flowers are prized in traditional tea ceremonies. Japanese witch hazel is similar in appearance to an American species (H. virginiana), but has larger flowers and shorter fruiting calyxes.

Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’

The introduction of Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) to the West followed a bit more tortuous path. Charles Maries, employed by the nursery firm of Charles Veitch & Sons in London, was sent to China in 1877 to collect interesting native plants. He returned from the Lushan Mountains with seed of this species but succeeded in raising only one plant. Twenty years passed before George Nicholson, curator at Kew Gardens in London, determined that this plant was different from the recently acquired Japanese witch hazel. It was not until 1914 that Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts began distributing seed, plants, and graft wood to individuals and nurseries.

Despite those tribulations, Chinese witch hazel cultivars have become more widely available in the US than those of its Japanese cousin. One reason is that, while both offer delightful yellow to golden blossoms, flowers of the Chinese species are the most fragrant of all the witch hazels. Some also consider it to be the prettiest, with elongated petals that have less of a twist than those of other species. Ranging in height from ten to twenty feet, its dark yellow flowers appear on bare stems from December to March.

Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’

Two from North America

Not surprisingly, the most popular American species, common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), made its entry on the American scene much earlier, having been discovered in 1687 and grown in England by Bishop Henry Compton. Despite its species epithet, common witch hazel is found over a wide swath of the Eastern states, reaching as far west as Texas, and in Canada, from Ontario to Nova Scotia. This was the first plant to be called a witch hazel, a name derived from its resemblance to the European hazelnut (Corylus avellana), both in its leaves and in its use as a divining rod in the early days of the American colonies.1

It is commonly found in moist woods and along streams, where it contributes to autumn’s show of color. “Amongst the crimson and yellow hues of the falling leaves, there is no more remarkable object than the witch hazel, in the moment of its parting with its foliage, putting forth a profusion of gaudy yellow blossoms, and giving to November the counterfeited appearance of spring.”2

Common witch hazel is preferred by some gardeners over other species because of its earlier flowering. Whereas the others are winter blooming, this one flowers in the fall, making it a wonderful addition to any garden’s autumn color palette.

Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is limited in its distribution to the Ozark Plateau of Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It displays an impressive range of flower color, from pale yellow to deep red or reddish purple, as well as fiery fall foliage. The color variation is sufficiently pronounced for some experts to assert that the species has suffered some genetic modification by surrounding stands of common witch hazel. Although Ozark witch hazel cultivars are not highly sought after because of the relatively small petals on the flowers, hybrids have recently been created between the two American species, offering hope of sturdy and colorful autumn blooming selections.

Medicinal Uses

Though Hamamelis virginiana had been known botanically for nearly two centuries, it was not until Thomas Dickinson built a witch hazel distillery in 1866 that the tree became commonly known for its medicinal value. Dickinson had acquired his knowledge, in part, from local Native American tribes, including the Cherokee and the Iroquois. They used a decoction of the plant, derived from boiling its twigs and small branches, to treat cuts, bruises, and other injuries. They also found it helpful with colds and, in salve form, as a balm for sore or injured eyes. The preparation of their “magic water” underwent little change when Dickinson began manufacturing it, being eighty-six percent double-distilled witch hazel extract and fourteen percent alcohol. That formula has continued to this day—surely one of the oldest medicinal preparations to have survived unchanged.

Fall foliage of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Intermediate Hybrids

The popularity of witch hazels jumped once the two Asian species were crossed to produce the sturdier Hamamelis xintermedia hybrids. Hybridization of these species had been going on since the 1930s at places like Arnold Arboretum and Denmark’s Charlottenlund Botanical Garden. The first to be named was ‘Arnold Promise’ in 1963, followed by ‘Diane’ in 1969. The mid-eighties brought a flood of new cultivars, signaling a renaissance in witch hazel popularity.

Popularity implies two conditions: cultivars that are varied and interesting, and plants that are disease resistant and reliable for the casual gardener. The new hybrid cultivars achieved these twin goals. Proof of the former can be seen by the number of hybrid cultivars now commercially available, in all shades of yellow, orange, and red, and in heights ranging from six feet to a towering twenty-five feet. Breeders have also been successful in producing hardy plants that are largely disease resistant.

A few of the more popular and commercially available witch hazel cultivars (derived from Hamamelis xintermedia, unless otherwise noted) are:

• ‘Arnold Promise’. Lemon yellow, sweetly fragrant flowers, appearing in late winter to early spring. Its autumn color, in shades of yellow, orange, and red, is unusual among yellow-flowered cultivars. A deservedly famous cultivar still in demand today. To ten feet tall.

• ‘Aurora’. Pale yellow flowers, with a warm orange base, appearing in midwinter. Has the longest petals of any cultivar, an excellent bouquet, and fiery autumn foliage. To ten feet tall.

• ‘Barmstedt Gold’. Long lasting, golden yellow flowers with a red base, appearing in late winter. Has a subtle scent. Highly rated by growers and witch hazel experts. To ten feet tall.

• H. mollis ‘Boskoop’. Golden yellow flowers with a red base. Blooms in early winter. The most widely distributed cultivar worldwide. Intensely fragrant. Yellow fall foliage. To ten feet tall.

• ‘Diane’. The deepest red flowers of any cultivar, appearing in midwinter. Named after the daughter of famed Belgian growers Robert and Jelena de Belder. Subtle fragrance. To eight feet tall.

• ‘Jelena’. Features luxurious copper flower colors, blooming in early to midwinter. One of the most popular of all witch hazels, notwithstanding its lack of scent. To twelve feet tall.

• H. mollis ‘Pallida’. Expert Chris Lane’s top pick among the yellows. Highly floriferous, with citrus- scented, sulfur yellow flowers. Easy to grow. Buttery fall foliage. To ten feet tall.

• ‘Rubin’. Flowers mature to a fabulous, clear red with a red purple calyx in midwinter. Lightly fragrant. Foliage ages to an orange gold in the fall. Highly rated. To twelve feet tall.

• ‘Westerstede’. Lovely primrose yellow flowers, elaborately curled and crimped. Blooms in late winter. Golden yellow fall foliage. Light scent. To ten feet tall.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Landscape Gems

Given the winter appeal of witch hazels, finding a good site is worth some time and thought. Though flower color and scent will figure prominently in your decision, the tree’s mature shape and winter silhouette should be carefully considered. The size of your garden, and the degree to which you wish to feature your selection, or blend it into a woodland garden, will help you decide which of the six basic shapes will best serve your needs.3

• Upright. Several selections of Hamamelis virginiana and H. xintermedia can reach thirty feet tall and twenty feet wide.

• Vase-shaped. These include cultivars such as ‘Arnold Promise.’

• Oval/Rounded. These multi-stemmed specimens, including H. vernalis (to twenty feet tall) and H. mollis (to fifteen feet tall) cultivars, may become wider than taller.

• Spreading. Cultivars such as ‘Carmine Red’ are smaller (to ten feet) and wider (to fourteen feet) than others, but also quite vigorous.

• Horizontal Spreading. Certain H. japonica cultivars have an almost flat-top habit.

• Weeping. Much less common, there are selections such as ‘Lombart’s Weeping’ that are low (to four feet) and wide (to ten feet) and can be pruned to achieve a weeping habit.

When used as a feature plant, situate a witch hazel where a clear foreground will make its charms readily apparent. Ideally, this would be near a path or a sitting area. A background of evergreen shrubs will show off the witch hazel’s delicate and colorful blooms, especially the yellows. And, given their winter appeal, you might like to plant your witch hazel where it can be viewed from indoors.

In a woodland garden, consider the amount of sunlight that will reach your planting. Witch hazels are best under deciduous trees, which admit winter sunlight through their bare branches. Witch hazels shaded by evergreens tend to exhibit straggly growth and fewer flowers. Consider Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), or Loropetalum chinense ‘Razzleberri’ as companion plants for complementary fall color.

To create a varied winter garden, try adding shrubs such as Mahonia lomariifolia or Oregon grape (M. aquifolium), with their serrated, evergreen leaves and golden flowers. Viburnum tinus and Daphne odora are excellent choices for their evergreen foliage, and both contribute a heavenly floral scent in winter. For texture, include one of the shrubby dogwoods such as Cornus stolonifera; their attractive red or yellow bare stems will strengthen the winter color scheme.

Planting and Care

First and foremost, witch hazels need a winter chill to achieve full flowering. For best results, temperatures should drop to at least 30°F. Most of the species and cultivars are hardy down to -10°F (equivalent to USDA hardiness zone 5); common witch hazel will survive colder temperatures without harm. The Sunset Western Garden Book lists them as suitable for zones 3-7 and 15-17, although, again, common witch hazel will work in colder zones.

Plant in humus-rich soil, making sure that it receives proper drainage. Witch hazels grow happily in a pH range between 4.5 and 6.5. It is important to keep young plants growing well; if they suffer at an early stage, flowering will be reduced in both quantity and quality.

Witch hazels need summer water, especially to establish the root systems of younger plants. Mulching is beneficial in maintaining soil moisture. Young plants may need to be protected with horticultural cloth or Cloud Cover to avoid any damage during frosty spring nights, when the sap is rising.

As most cultivars are produced on grafted stock, make sure to prune off any suckers appearing below the graft line. Chris Lane also recommends yearly pruning after the tree has flowered; he prunes all of the previous season’s growth back to two growth buds to encourage the maximum flowering in the following season.

Modern Witches

A few minutes of internet searching on witch hazels will highlight just how far they have come as landscape plants in the last twenty years. There are now more than a hundred cultivars, with more than twenty established as mainstream choices. And why not? Witch hazels are like the band that has not gotten a major label deal but opens for the stars and surprises the audience with talent and charisma. With four-season appeal in both foliage and flower, witch hazels add a unique bouquet to the fragrant garden, and are a standout in the winter landscape.

The writer is indebted to Christopher Lane, one of the foremost authorities on the subject of witch hazels, for the historical information referenced in this article.

  1. Christopher Lane Witch Hazels, 2005. Portland, OR: Timber Press. ↩
  2. GB Emerson, quoted in Lane’s Witch Hazels ↩
  3. Georgene A Bramlage, “Hamamelis—Landscape Aristocrats.”, December 4, 2006. ↩

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