Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Plants With Winter Interest Part 6 - Witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Chinese Witchhazel in Jill's Landscape
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’
 MG Jill Hudock adds to our series on Plants with Winter Interest, extolling the virtues of Witchhazel.

I’ll never forget my first sighting of witchhazel. I was in Winterthur, Delaware for a horticultural symposium on a cloudy, February day. The symposium had broken for lunch and as I looked for table, I saw them. The sun had just peeked through the clouds, backlighting a grouping of flowering small trees. (Cue angelic music.) They absolutely glowed. I was a goner right then and there. Had to have one, or two, or maybe a grove, or….well, you get the idea.

I didn’t even know what they were. After lunch I bee-lined outside, tromping through 6” of snow to get a better look, never mind I wasn’t wearing boots. I was going to check these beauties out, up close and personal.

The fragrance was honey-like. The flowers consisted of shrived lemon-colored petals splayed out from an orange-brown center. While I don’t think they would win any sort of award, unless it was for Uniqueness, they were definitely fascinating. I’d never seen anything like it. The whole effect from a distance was lovely; up close, funky.

Chinese Witchhazel in Jill's Landscape
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’
After I’d learnt my new must-have was a Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese Witchhazel, (the Winterthur staff is very knowledgeable) I started to wonder where I’d get one of these. Since I frequented our local nurseries after their bloom time, I had never noticed them there. And frankly, who is shopping the nurseries in February?? Did they even carry them? This was going to be a mission, I could tell.

Long story, short: my persistence paid off. A local nursery ordered one especially for me, although it took 3 years before my little ‘Pallida’ was purchased and planted. I’ve noticed lately that more nurseries are carrying them, especially in fall. However, now is the perfect time to research choices and plan their placement.

The choices are many: Chinese, Japanese, Vernal and Common Witchhazels. There are hybrids which are crosses between the Chinese and Japanese breeds, known as ‘x intermedia’ with a named cultivar to follow. My tree is botanically known as Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’. I chose ‘Pallida’ because it garnered a Gold Medal from the PA Horticultural Society, has highly fragrant yellow flowers and is a one of the smaller hybrids that would best fit in my landscape.

I placed it in front of evergreens to showcase its blooms, allowing enough space for the afternoon’s setting sun to backlight it. This arrangement works well for late afternoon tea. Do I actually have afternoon tea? Only when the witchhazel is blooming! It gives me a qualified reason to sit, to marvel and to plan the next big garden “thing”. Witchhazels also look great with the morning sun behind them, as I saw them at Winterthur.

Jill's Picture of Longwood Gardens Specimens
'Arnold Promise' (yellow) and 'Jelena' (orange)
If I want to enjoy the fragrance I have to take a short walk. I like to see how long it takes before the scent reaches me. It’s always a bonus when a beautiful plant has a pleasing aroma. I have placed witchhazels close to my clients’ driveway or backdoor so they may experience the scent as they come and go. This is one plant that needs to be appreciated as the only show in town. So give it Winter’s stage; it won’t disappoint!

Witchhazels bloom collectively anytime from January to March. Most last for more than a month! Choose from yellow, red, deep red, bronze-red, or copper flowers. Fragrance will also vary from species to species, or cultivar to cultivar. If that’s super-important to you, then the only way to determine your choice is the sniff test. And of course, this requires meeting the specimen(s). And that could be the hardest part…finding them to do so. I am happy with my tree’s scent even though I had to rely on references, not the real deal.

In spring, they produce oval-shaped, dark green to blue-green leaves. In fall they turn orange, red or yellow, depending upon the variety. They are small trees, growing slowly in full sun to partial shade. Moist, organic-laden, well-drained soils are their friends. Re-creating a woodland environment will suit them perfectly. They are understory trees, ranging from 10’-20’ tall with a wider spread. Most can be selectively pruned into graceful, artistic specimens. The Vernal witchhazel will sucker, creating a natural hedge.

Hamamelis is not related to the tree that gives us hazel nuts. Hazel nuts come from the Corylus genus. The common name for the Corylus genus is Filbert, as in the nut…feeling less confused? Hazel nuts are also known as filbert nuts. This is starting to drive me nuts!

“Hamamelis” is a Latin word combining two Greek terms. ‘Hama’ means “at the same time” or “together”. And ‘melon’ is “fruit”. “Hamamelis” translates into “together with fruit”. Witchhazel seeds and flowers are present at the same time on the same tree, which is a very unique situation. A seed capsule contains only 2 seeds. The capsule bursts open upon maturity, flinging the 2 offspring 30 feet or more. The edible seeds taste like pistachio nuts. I’ve never even noticed them, so this will be my winter’s new gardening experience. Hope I can capture them before they rocket off!

We are more familiar with the medicinal uses of witchhazel. Its bark and leaves contain the valuable astringent that reduces swelling. By physically shrinking blood vessels, witchhazel helps treat many skin-related maladies such as acne, eczema and psoriasis. An application will alleviate discomfort from bruises, insect bites, poison ivy and hemorrhoids. It’s also found in eye drops. Next time I want to get rid of my bleary-eyed, allergy-induced appearance I can thank the witchhazel.

On a more diverse note, witchhazel has been used traditionally to search for water and precious metals. Divining rods can be fashioned from its pliable twigs. “Witching sticks” came from the Old English ‘wych’ for bendable. I don’t know if the divining twig our developer used was from a witchhazel, but he did use one to pinpoint where our well should be dug. And after 23 years so far, so good! Now if he could’ve just found some gold while he was at it…

For a marvelously thorough resource on Hamamelis history, cultivation and uses, check out . The Steven Foster Group specializes in information on medicinal and aromatic plants. You will find a wide range of information along with photos.

My witchhazel has given me years of delight, taking me back to the first time I “discovered” them at Winterthur. What a fantastic day! I have always loved going to Winterthur. Bringing a bit of it home keeps that memory alive.

You can enjoy a bit of Winterthur at . Their website is just as gorgeous and as well-planned as the woodland estate, which I highly encourage you to put on your travel list.

Check their site for special activities when choosing a visit time. Winterthur does not have a “bad” season. You will be enchanted whenever you visit, guaranteed. Allow extra time to see their exquisite museum and valuable decorative arts collection. There is also a bookstore, as well as a separate gift shop, complete with take-along plants. Ummm, I can see where this is going…road trip, anyone?

Until then, keep your eyes peeled for the lovely witchhazel this winter. Maybe you, too, will be caught under its magical spell!

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