Wonderful witch hazel, late winter’s gift

  • Clsoe-up of the yellow blossom of a wild witch hazel Hilda Weges—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thursday, January 25, 2018

It’s too early to write about the joys of the garden in springtime. But late winter brings some nice rewards for gardeners. One of these harbingers of spring I discovered rather late in life is the hybrid Asian witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia).

I first learned about witch hazel from my mother-in-law, Rachel Benfey, who had several mature witch-hazels of this type in her Pennsylvania garden. Every February she cut branches and brought them indoors to force into bloom early. Experiencing their magic was a revelation to me. The flowers are weirdly wonderful. The buds don’t look too promising, small and shriveled. But they open into a cluster of crinkly, thread-like petals. They look like something concocted by fairies.

Depending on the variety, H. x intermedia flowers range from pale yellow to burnt orange. Their colors are subtle. If they arrived amidst the riot of vividly hued, spring-blooming shrubs like azalea and lilac, they’d be lost. But in earliest spring, when color is scarce in the landscape, they’re dazzling. Despite their delicate appearance, they often appear gallantly unfazed under toppings of snow.

Not only are the witch-hazel blossoms delightful to look at, their scent is intoxicating. I’m sure a wine snob would have a field day coming up with fanciful phrases to describe its “nose.” I’ll just say it’s fresh and subtly sweet and, coming at the end of a long winter, it smells like life itself.

The hybrid Asian strain was developed in the 1920s by chance at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, outside Boston. The cross-breeding occurred when a hungry honey bee visited two different species, Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and the Japanese species (H. japonica), that stood side by side. Seven seeds were germinated from this pairing. One of these grew into ‘Arnold’s Promise,’ the variety named for the arboretum. Later crosses have resulted in the popular ‘Jelena,’ which has copper-colored blooms, and the pale yellow ‘Pallida.’

Witch hazel forms an appealing rounded shape, with toothed, oval-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and downy brown on the underside. The foliage turns yellow and orange in the fall. Some varieties, like ‘Pallida,’ have an upright growth habit. Others, like ‘Orange Beauty,’ are more spreading. Most will grow to between 10 and 15 feet tall. But some, including ‘Arnold’s Promise’ grow as big as 20 feet wide and tall. They are perfectly suited to naturalized areas; make sure to leave them plenty of room to grow.

H. x Intermedia varieties are said to be hardy in zones 5 through 7. (As I’ve learned over the years, these hardiness ranges are always approximate.) They grow best in full sun, but tolerate part shade too. They prefer moist but well-drained, loamy acidic soil. They can suffer from drought stress, so it’s best to mulch their roots in summer to keep them cool and water them in periods of extended dryness. The ideal growing situation for a witch hazel is morning sun, with light shade during the afternoon.

Witch hazel is free from most diseases and insect infestations. Alas, deer can be a problem, depending on where you live and what other foods your deer have to choose from. Small plants can be protected by chicken-wire enclosures. I’ve read a wide range of reports about deer trouble. For what it’s worth, my mother-in-law’s garden was overrun by deer, but they did not seem to be tempted by her witch hazels.

Last year, I’m sad to say, my as-yet-small witch-hazel shrub succumbed not to intrepid deer but to the brush hog of a well-meaning but over-zealous landscaper. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to plant not just one, but several, including ‘Arnold’s Promise.’ This variety is a particular favorite of Richard E Weaver, Jr., a former taxonomer at the Arnold Arboretum. As he said, “Its promise is the promise of spring.”

Birds, bees and butterflies

There’s a lot of buzz these days about butterflies and the other endangered pollinators that our gardens depend on. A useful site to consult is wmassbees.org. It lists information as well as a schedule of webinars and other educational events. Here are some upcoming pollinator-related activities and presentations:

Garden for Butterflies

This week’s clinic at Hadley Garden Center features Bill Benner, member and former President of MA Butterfly Club. Benner will talk about butterflies commonly seen in western Mass, which plants attract butterflies, and ways to make your garden butterfly friendly. It’s free, but come early because the clinics fill up fast. Saturday, 1 p.m. 285 Russell St. (Route 9) in Hadley. 584-1423

A month of pollinators

In February, the Hitchcock Center in Amherst will host several talks and workshops related to butterflies and other pollinators. On Feb. 1, from 7 to 8 p.m., naturalist and educator John Root will present Butterflies of the World, a powerpoint presentation featuring images of butterflies from every major continent throughout their life cycles. Participants will learn fascinating facts about these enchanting insects, including myths and legends about butterflies, distinguishing characteristics of the five butterfly families, wing coloration, feeding behavior and instruction in establishing butterfly gardens. Snowdate: Feb. 15

Members: $8/Non-Members $10

Hitchcock pollinators

Attracting Pollinators at Hitchcock: What Plants Where? presented by Tom Sullivan of Pollinators Welcome of Montague will take place on Feb. 3, 10, and 17 from 10 a.m. to noon. Sullivan’s introductory talk will focus on the most attractive pollinator-friendly plants, where they grow best at Hitchcock and how they will fit into your landscape. You will leave full of ideas for designing your home gardens. Sullivan will follow up with links to key information to further your research and pollinator-attracting success.

On Feb. 10 and 17, there will be a design “charrette” for some new beds at the new Hitchcock Center. During these two sessions you will learn about and inspect the Hitchcock Center’s site and apply your newfound knowledge as you try your hand at designing bee and butterfly meadow gardens that complement the building. Members $40/Non-members $55.

For more information and to register for these programs, go to: hitchcockcenter.org.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.