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.
VILMA C FERGUSON says
Interested in purchasing a few witch hazel plants. Could you send me info where in my area I can find them? I live in Hedgesville, WV 25427
I would just look at your local nurseries with the best selection. You can order mail order from forestfarm.com or other online nurseries.
Where is the best place to purchase trees/bushes other than online? I live in CT. Thanks.
I am not sure what you mean by best, but check out my post on buying plants cheaply.
Good day Jim. Im a member of the Freehold NJ Shade Tree Commission. Extreme weather events here on the East Coast over the past three years has resulted in the loss of more than 500 street trees in our 1 square mile town alone! We are now working to replant and really diversify our urban forest. Your thoughts on whether the Witch Hazel would be a good candidate for a curb side tree. We have somewhat acidic clay soil here, and well, up until recently were in zone 7, but who knows now. Thanks for any advice you may give.
I doubt that any of the witch hazels would make a street good tree as they all tend to grow limbs out at too low of a level. Their shape is definitely not that of the classic street trees. If this was not a concern, you could probably give most any of them a try.
I think a better choice may be another member of the witch hazel family, Persian Parrotia. A real good cultivar for street tree use is Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’. It actually was the Society of Municipal Arborists’ Urban tree of the year in 2014. For more information on this member of the witchhazel family, click here.
For a list of past winners you can click here, or go the the Society’s website at http://www.urban-forestry.com/
Their 2015 winner, the Yellowwood is another great tree.
Be sure to diversify at the genus level (and family level as much as possible) as exotic pests tend to affect plants that are closely related, i.e don’t have 30 types of maples and think you are diversified against exotics pests.
It would be great goal to have no more than 5% of your trees in any specific genus. This is probably not possible if you include your existing trees, but the closer you get the more you are protected against another Emerald Ash borer, Dutch Elm disease, etc.
Where can I purchase a chinese witchhazel tree. Your blog was very helpful . I saw it in a magazine when I was a teenager, and told myself I had to get one if I got my own house. Now is the time to buy it. When is the best planting time. Thanks for all of the info.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Hi Jim, first time. I would like to know which witch hazel would be good for zone 9, if any. Thanks
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.
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
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.
Would witch hazel do well potted? If so which one? I live in an apartment.
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.
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?
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.
Question? Which one is deer resistant in the northeast? thanks
I can’t really say. Some sources say they are deer resistant, but some say they aren’t. Deer will eat anything if hungry enough, I would even be concerned about rabbits chewing on the bark when these plants are small. Some deer repellent may be worth a try. I have not tried this one, but it looks like it has better reviews than the one I have used: http://www.amazon.com/Messina-Wildlife-DS-C-032-Stopper-Concentrate/dp/B000OWEB0O/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1370999709&sr=8-3&keywords=deer+off
Reed Pugh 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.
Rub it in Reed, my ‘Westerend’ only been blooming for a month, last year it started in January.
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
Glad to hear it Jack, if you have any topics you would like my take on, please feel free to use the “Contact Me” form.