Witch hazel: a sure sign that spring is near

Hamamelis X intermedia 'Diane'

Hamamelis X intermedia ‘Diane’

Late last week I was at the kitchen sink gazing out the window at the snow-covered garden when my eye caught flashes of deep copper-maroon on the witch hazel near the side of the house.
“The first sign of spring!” I shouted with joy, scaring Rufus away from Jake’s bowl, where he was surreptitiously scarfing down the remains of Jake’s breakfast.
I rushed out immediately and took a picture of Hamamelis X intermedia ‘Diane’, a lovely shrub I forget about until suddenly its fringe-like blossoms trumpet spring on a cold February morning. It’s important to preserve these moments to share with your gardening buddies.
Then I rushed down to the end of the garden to check out H. X intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Diane’s brother cultivar, which blooms in a pretty yellow. Eureka! it was starting to show too.

H. X intermedia 'Arnold Promise'

H. X intermedia‘Arnold Promise’

I’m amazed that any shrub can actually bloom in frigid temperatures. These have a faint spicy fragrance, too, dulled in especially cold weather, when the blossoms seem to shrivel a bit too.
Both shrubs have two seasons of interest, an important attribute I learned to look for years ago: they boast fall colour as well as early spring flowers. The leaves of ‘Arnold’ turn a lemon-gold, and ‘Diane’ shows brilliant red, orange and yellow. In between they’re nothing special, although the shrubs carry a nice vase shape and ‘Diane’, in particular, shows off pretty oval green leaves, which have significant veining. She’s placed in a better spot than ‘Arnold’, I admit, at the curve of the path as you enter the back garden, whereas ‘Arnold’ I unfortunately buried in a thick planting of snakeroot and hostas next to a cedar and you don’t notice him much. It doesn’t matter about their summer garb anyway–they pay for themselves spring and fall.

'Diane' in fall regalia

‘Diane’ in fall regalia

The odd botanical name with the X in the middle means these siblings are crosses, in this case between Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and the Chinese one (H. mollis). Both typically grow eight to 12 feet tall, but poor ‘Arnold’ is rather held back by his crowded conditions in my garden. Many other cultivars are available in reds and bronzy tones, among them ‘Jelena’, ‘Livia’ and ‘Fire Charm’. Yellows include the pale ‘Pallida’ and the brighter ‘Sunburst’ and ‘Goldcrest’. If your local nursery doesn’t have them, there’ll be others to choose from. Most are hardy to Canadian Zones 4 or 5; ‘Diane’ reportedly only to Zone 6, but she’s doing fine in my borderline garden.
Witch hazels like full sun, but my adaptable ‘Diane’ gets only partial sun and remains happy. Generally they prefer moist acidic soil, too, but mine survive just fine in sandy, rather dry earth, which tends to be more alkaline. I added peat moss when I planted Diane four or five years ago, but haven’t added any since. Maybe this year.
‘Diane’ started to lose her shape a couple of summers ago and I realized several suckers were sprouting from the roots and some of the branches didn’t seem to be blooming. So now Chris, my in-house pruning expert, removes unwanted branches after the leaves start to show in early summer, and ‘Diane’ is back to her shapely svelte self again.
The above witch hazels are hybrids, bred for looks and performance, but let’s not overlook the native varieties, H. virginiana and H. vernalis, hardy to Zone 5 and 4 respectively. The former blooms in fall and its flowers can be less obvious because they have to compete with the leaves; like the hybrids, H. vernalis blooms on bare leaves in spring, in dark yellow, orange or red. If yours is a native plant garden, one of these is for you.
Witch hazel isn’t a true hazel, which bears the botanical name Corylus, and their similar leaves may account for the similar common name. And yes there is a connection between the plant and the astringent sold at the drug store. It’s been used for hundreds of years to treat bruises, sores and swellings, burns and rashes, to keep skin perspiration free in hot summers, and in eye washes and aftershave.

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