Witch hazel tree for flowers in February

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.

Plants for fall color - common witch hazel

The yellow to gold color of the witchhazels are a perfect complement to the other subtle surrounding fall tones

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.

Vernal witch hazel flowers up close

Sure it looks OK here, but this is about as big as you will ever see these flowers.
photo credit: Jim, the Photographer via photopin cc

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.

Witch hazel tree chinese

Now that’s what I am talking about!
photo credit: jumbo185usa via photopin cc

These witch hazel trees also have a fabulous yellow to yellow orange fall color.

Witch hazel tree Chinese Pallida

This yellow does show up well in the dark winter landscape.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/hortoris/4348323081/

The cultivar Pallida (Hamamelis ‘Pallida’) is a wonderful early flowering witch hazel who’s fragrant flowers last for 4 or more weeks.  It is hard to find for some reason.  If you see one buy it.  Then 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.

Witch hazel tree intermedia in full bloom

photo credit: jacki-dee via photopin cc

Jelena – 1 inch long reddish flowers glow in the distance like copper according to plant guru Michael Dirr.

Witch hazel tree Jelena

While a smaller variety, Jelena is certainly worthy of a spot in my winter garden.
photo credit: dogtooth77 via photopin cc

Witch hazel tree Jelena in fall color

Not a bad fall color either!
photo credit: HorsePunchKid via photopin cc

Witch hazel tree Diane flowers

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ flowers
photo credit: French Disko via photopin cc

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.

Westerstede witch hazel tree

Witch hazel tree ‘Westerstede’ in my yard in January a few years ago. The flowers held on for 3 weeks after the snow melted.

 

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.

If you liked this post and would like to find more cool trees, check out my e-book, the Guide to Selecting Shade Trees. It contains lots of trees you may not have considered, but will grow great in your garden. If you subscribe to updates in the box in my sidebar you will receive it for FREE immediately.

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Comments

  1. says

    I just found your Blog and reviewed a number of your past postings. Lots of practical information for all of us the “common” gardener. Like that! Will be back. Jack

  2. says

    I like that practicality of your blog. I write for clients and friends and often offer similar types of information.

    I did a post on Witch Hazels back in February, mine have been flowering this year for over two months.

  3. Oliver C. Graham says

    I have a witch hazel tree in my yard that I bought from a local nursery about 18 years ago. It was (we were told) to grow to about 25 feet tall and bloom in February. It is currently about 60 plus feet tall and does bloom in February. However, the flowers are very small and always freezes. I love the tree although it is taller than we bargained for. The leaves are bright green, thick, and stays on the tree for about 11 months and maybe a week or so more. It sprouts from the roots so I don’t know what variety we have. We are expecting to build another house within a year and would like to plant two witch hazels that would grow to about 25 feet, bloom a bright color about February and not freeze. What variety of tree do I need and where can I get two?

    • says

      Oliver I am not sure what zone you are in, but if you are in zone 6 or higher you should be good with the Chinese witch hazel ‘Pallida’ or if zone 5 or higher, the hybrid ‘Arnold’s Promise’ which is pretty commonly available. I doubt either will ever reach 25′, probably more likely 15′-20′ or so and that will take a while. Both have great yellow flowers in late winter that tolerate freezes.

      I would definitely prune off any suckers from the base as they are usually grafted onto common witch hazel which won’t have the flowers in the winter, but instead will be in Fall.

    • says

      I would say just with any of the hybrids. As long as you stay away from the Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) you should be fine. They might need to be pruned a bit but they can easily be kept small as long as you are not bashful with a pruner.

      Plants are typically 2 hardiness zones less hardy when kept in pots. So if you are in zone 5, you should only grow plants in pots that are hardy to zone 3. Since most witchhazels are hardy to zone 5, if you are in zone 7 they should be OK in a pot, but if you are say in zone 5 or 6, you will need to protect this tree in the winter. And no you can’t bring them into your apartment, they do need cold in the winter to survive. Perhaps an unheated garage? Buy don’t forget they will need some water in the winter too. Boy it sounds like I have a future blog post idea.

  4. Frank says

    Great article. Does witch hazel need fertilizer to enhance flowering? I have several including Diane and the leaves stay on too long and seem to diminish the effects of flowering

    • says

      Mine flower fine with just a general fertilizer I put on my plant beds in the spring. In years I have skipped this step it still seems to flower OK. It seems that they retain their leaves more in mild winters. They may also retain them more when they are younger plants.

    • says

      I don’t think you are going to get any witch hazel to do real well in zone 9. Most work pretty well in zone 8, but zone 9 is pushing it. Boy I envy those winters you have! Witch hazels tend to be more of a colder climate plant for us that in January are praying for any sign of plant life (at least I do here in Chicago). I am sure there are comparable plants for your milder climate, but I do not know what they are. Sorry.

  5. Linda Cressy says

    Do you know if the Deer or Elk will eat Witch Hazel trees? Do you know a good source for the trees that is on line? I live in the mountains of Arizona.

    • says

      Yes they will. They are probably not going to be their preferred food choice, but as evidenced by two stubs of branches on my witch hazel, if their favorite food sources are not available, they will eat them.

      They do not typically prefer witch hazel, but they don’t completely avoid them either. Most sources consider them seldom seriously damaged.

  6. Randy says

    I have a Vernal Witch Hazel that I would like to make smaller. Can I successfully shorten, by pruning, it to fit in a more formal space?

    • says

      You should be able to. If it is just a bit larger then you want, you should be able to do it all at once and it won’t look too drastic. You may want to wait till fall or late winter / early Spring to give the plant it’s best chance. If you cut it way back after it has spent a lot of energy making leaves but has not gotten much energy in return from the leaves you will be stressing the plant.

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