There is a special woody plant that charms the sun into leaving some of its gold along toasty brown branches. Each year, when spring begins to claim the garden, Winterhazels (the many species of Corylopsis) unfurl pale gold chains of buttery, rounded, bell-shaped flowers. These pendulous flower clusters are made up of numbers of individual blooms draped in groups, as if unopened buttercup flowers had been strung together in 2-6 inch long braids, and hung from the branches. The visual effect is completely delightful, but this is not the only attraction of Winterhazel. The flowers are also quite fragrant with a spicy-sweet scent reminiscent of the aroma of the flowers of its close relative, Witchhazel (Hamamelis).
There are a number of species of Corylopsis which vary in height, showiness of flower clusters and foliar characteristics. Nonetheless, all Corylopsis are deciduous, mult-stemmed shrubs which bear clusters of pale gold to deep yellow flowers in the spring before the leaves emerge. The foliage is a handsome medium green in the summer, coarse-textured, and generally covered with a light down on the undersurface. Fall foliage varies from a lovely clear yellow to nondescript. The leaves sometimes remain green on the branches until killed by the first hard freeze. The bark is a handsome light tan which is beautiful with the sunny colored flowers. All Corylopsis are hardy throughout the southeastern US from the coast to the mountains. However, because they are early bloomers, flowers and leaf buds may be damaged by late freezes, especially in the mountains. They prefer well-drained, moist, acidic soils but a number of different Corylopsis thrive in the Piedmont clays at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). Corylopsis flower most profusely in full sun but they will also perform well in light shade and often benefit from the slight frost protection that a light overhead canopy may offer. Corylopsis are easily propagated vegetatively from cuttings taken in summer and rooted under mist after treatment with rooting promoters. Newly rooted cuttings have rather sensitive root systems. To insure survival, they should be left undisturbed in their rooting medium to rest through one winter and then they can be successfully potted up the following spring. Propagation of Corylopsis from seed, is quite difficult, requiring shifting, long-term temperature treatments over several months. Corylopsis glabrescens, Fragrant Winterhazel, is probably the most readily available Winterhazel. This robust native of Japan is the hardiest of the group and will reach 8 to 15 feet in height with similar spread. This species can be limbed up to create a small, rounded, multi-stemmed tree. Flowers are pale yellow and borne in 2 inch long clusters before the emergence of its very large 4 inch long and 3 inch wide leaves. This species is also found with the botanical name C. gotoana and the taxonomists are not in complete agreement as to whether these are actually two separate species, with C. gotoana being exceptionally rare, or are two names for the same plant. By any name Fragrant Winterhazel is a wonderful addition to the garden.
Corylopsis pauciflora, Buttercup Winterhazel, is also native to Japan, as well as Taiwan, but is a much more demure creature only reaching about 5 feet in height with a spread of 5-6 feet. The leaves are a bit more refined in shape and texture and are generally 2 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. Flower clusters are short (1 to 2 inches) with bright yellow flowers. This species is much more sensitive to high pH soils and winter exposure than its more vigorous cousin. It performs best in light shade and is perhaps the best choice for small, suburban settings with existing large trees. Like all Corylopsis, it is very beautiful when in bloom against a dark, evergreen background.
Corylopsis platypetala has no acknowledged common name. It can grow to be quite large, reaching 15 feet or more in a favorable site. Pale, creamy yellow flowers bloom on 2 inch long clusters and are very striking. This is a native of China and is tolerant of full sun or light shade but needs adequate space.
Corylopsis spicata, Spike Winterhazel, is a native of Japan with a very open, bushy habit enhanced by spreading, picturesque branching. It is frequently wider than it is tall, reaching 6 to 10 feet in height with at least that much spread. Flowers are clear yellow and borne on 1 to 2 inch long clusters. The foliage of this species is exceptional as the new leaves open a dark purple and mature to a deep blue-green.
Corylopsis willmottiae, Willmott Winterhazel, is a native of China rarely found in the US. This species probably has the largest flower clusters which may be 3 to 4 inches long and covered with pale, green-yellow blooms. The shrub itself can reach 12 feet in height with a spread of up to 10 feet or so. There is a named cultivar of C. willmottiae, 'Spring Purple' whose young shoots are reddish-purple and change to green as the season progresses.
Like deciduous Magnolias, Winterhazels brave the first warm days of spring with a magnificent display that may suffer from late freezes. But the sight of their buttery flower clusters hanging most years in perfect golden chains is worth the disappointment of an odd year with late harsh weather. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), many different Winterhazels bloom throughout the gardens each spring. Come walk the curving paths to find the delightful sundrops, captured as the blooms of Winterhazel, that wait around each bend. br>