As you walk through the White Garden at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), towards the columns that frame the path out into the rest of the garden, a delicious fragrance gently calls your attention. The planting that greets you as you pass the columns includes the striking nandinas with their red fruit, some softly blue cypress, the wintersweet, and the witchhazel collection. It is the winter blooming witchhazels whose fragrance has enticed you past those columns. The witchhazels are a group of deciduous, multi-stemmed shrubs covered in Winter with unique, yellow, gold, orange and red flowers. The elegantly diminutive blooms are only 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter with four, narrow, strap-like petals. In spite of their small stature, the flowers create a beautifully heady scent. The name Witch Hazel probably originated from the early settlers' practice of using the forked branches of the Witch Hazels for dousing, or, water divining.
There are many types of Witch Hazel which can be grouped somewhat by the time that they flower. Ammerican/southern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bloom in the fall while others flower in late winter or early spring. The latter include vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis, vernal meaning 'of Spring'), Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis), Japanese witchhazel (H. japonica), and a group of many hybrid cultivars (H. x intermedia) resulting from crosses between the Chinese and Japanese witchhazels.
All of them are loosely spreading shrubs with an open habit. They will generally grow anywhere from 6' to 15' tall, depending on the type, and will spread as wide. The foliage is reminiscent of hazelnut (hence, witchhazel) but less glossy. In the fall, their soft green leaves turn a beautiful yellow which is sometimes tinged with purple or red.
Witchhazels prefer moist soils and will grow well in full sun or partial shade. There are no serious diseases or pests. However, make sure to move plants either in containers, or balled and burlapped, to avoid problems following transplanting. The witchhazels are all hardy throughout the Southeastern U.S. They have the interesting ability to curl up their flower petals when the temperature drops too low. This mechanism protects the blooms from getting damaged by late cold snaps and adds to their value in the landscape.
Propagation of witchhazels is difficult and is probably best left to nursery professionals and serious horticulturists. Cuttings can be collected on very soft, succulent young growth, wounded slightly by scoring or scraping the cut end, dipped in rooting promoter and rooted under mist. However, they may take in the range of three months to root and a large percentage of the rooted cuttings will die. Seed requires two resting periods at different temperatures before it will germinate. Most named cultivars are propagated by grafting onto seedling understock.
Perhaps the most widely grown and popular cultivar is 'Arnold Promise'. It is late blooming with large, showy yellow flowers. Of the many types and cultivars of Witchhazels, Dr. J. C. Raulston, The NCSU Arboretum's director, especially recommends two of the hybrid cultivars for North Carolina landscapes. 'Primavera' has large, exceptionally sweet-scented, soft yellow flowers, and blooms very prolifically in early Spring. 'Sunburst' flowers abundantly very early, in late January, with lovely, lemon yellow flowers (but note that 'Sunburst's' flowers are scentless). Both of these cultivars are available by mail order from Gossler Farms Nursery at 1200 Weaver Road, Springfield, OR, 97478. They are a dependable firm with the largest list of witchhazels in America.
Spring blooming Witch Hazels make beautiful additions to the late winter/early spring landscape. Their delightful fragrance and interesting flower form are generally underutilized, yet these shrubs could be grown in so many sites that would be transformed by the addition of just such a plant. The freshness of the witchhazel's fragrance and flower form help us sense the beauty of each Spring at its very start. As you contemplate your landscape's future, consider adding a spring blooming witchhazel. For the small efforts of planting and watering, the Witch Hazel's beautifully gentle nudge to stop, breathe, and sense the delight of spring could then be waiting around the corner for you in your own garden.