I could not let February pass and not profile my favorite winter flowering plant, the witch hazel tree. Yes, I said winter flowering plant. Yes there are plants that bloom in the winter including the Dawn viburnum and Lenten rose. They however, can’t compare to the best of the witch hazels when you are facing a cold snow filled winter like we have in the Midwest.
Witch Hazel tree family (Hamamelis)
The Witch hazel genus has several members. The most common is the………. Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Wow, I bet you didn’t know this blog would be so insightful. This witch hazel tree is native from Georgia to Nebraska. It also has a very nice yellow fall color.
This however, is not the tree I am talking about. See it is a fall bloomer. While it is certainly nice in the fall to have flowers, we can do better.
Another witch hazel is the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis). This is more of a shrub. It does however bloom in January or February. The problem is these flowers are small and sparse. They are hardly noticeable. If you are sitting inside by the fire drinking cognac gazing at your yard you might miss them.
The Witch Hazel trees I want
Now lets get to the good ones. The granddaddy of them is the Chinese witch hazel tree (Hamamelis mollis). These are small trees growing to 15 – 20 feet high and wide with a rounded outline. They are hardy in zones 5 to 8, although temperatures -15 degrees F can damage the flower buds. The bright fragrant flowers bloom in February or March and last several weeks.
These witch hazel trees also have a fabulous yellow to yellow orange fall color.
The cultivar Pallida (Hamamelis ‘Pallida’) is a wonderful early flowering witch hazel who’s fragrant flowers last for 4 or more weeks. It may only be hard to zone 5b or 6, so I’d stick to the hardier cultivars mentioned below. But if I were in zone 6, I would definitely buy it. Plant it in your front yard and get ready to answer the question “What kind of tree is THAT?!” every February.
Hybrid Witch Hazel trees
If you can’t get a Pallida witch hazel tree, you are not out of luck. There are witch hazel trees that are crosses between the Chinese and the Japanese witch hazels. These are more common in my area and may be better. These hybrids (Hamamelis x intermedia) offer a variety of sizes, flower colors and even earlier bloom times! Some of these qualify more as witch hazel shrubs then witch hazel trees. Here are some of the best:
Arnolds Promise – Very cool fall color. Yellow, orange and bright red can appear all on one leaf. Try to do that burning bush! As far as flowers, they are yellow, fragrant and later blooming then rest. You may have to wait to March till your flowers open. It is however worth the wait and they will last a month long.
Jelena – 1 inch long reddish flowers glow in the distance like copper according to plant guru Michael Dirr.
Diane – This is one of the earliest red flowering forms. Its leaves can persist in the winter and cover some of the flowers though. It is common, but Jelena may be better choice (maybe not- if you have an opinion, please comment).
Westerstede – This is the one in my yard. It is an upright growing form that has a faint fragrance but nice sturdy yellow flowers and solid fall color.
There are other witch hazel trees to consider including Glowing embers, Primavera, and Sunburst. There is a comprehensive book* on witch hazels which describes many more and has nice photos if you are interested in learning more about these great plants.
Selecting your Witch Hazel tree
When choosing a witch hazel tree try to get one that was grown on its own roots. If the tree you are looking at has suckers growing at its base, it is probably a grafted variety. This is OK as long as you are willing to remove these annually, but one grown on its own roots is preferred. You should probably choose a big one too as they are slow growing.