Before the daffodils have poked their heads above the snow, and before the Forsythia comes out with its cheerful yellow blossoms, there is another plant that is an indicator that spring is well on its way. If you’re someone who looks forward to an early spring every year, one of the best plants to have in the garden is spring-blooming Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis). It is a western relative of our native witch hazel (H. virginiana), which blooms yellow in late fall.
Usually flowering when there is still a good layer of snow on the ground, spring blooming Witch Hazel is a small to medium sized shrub that provides multiple seasons of interest. Its blossoms are unique, with four narrow ribbon-shaped petals surrounding the center, and are produced in clusters very close to the stem. They will close their flowers in freezing weather and re-open as it warms, leading to a nice long blooming season. Many varieties are fragrant, and blossoms come in colors ranging from orange to pink to red, very infrequently yellow. Fall color is somewhat unremarkable, yellow with brown splotches turning very quickly to brown. The leaves do tend to turn from the edges inward, so the appearance while they are changing can be very interesting.
There are hybrids as well, where a greater color variation is found. Typically the flowers are larger in these hybrids, and they tend to be much easier and quicker to grow. H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is a selection from the Arnold Arboretum which has incredibly fragrant blossoms, and bright yellow petals surrounding a deep red center. Fall color is better in this plant than the species, its foliage turning a nice clear bright yellow before it drops. All varieties have unique seed capsules that persist on the branches, and when ripe, will eject their two seeds up to 30 feet away!
It may be difficult to find varieties of Witch Hazel on nurseries, as their blooming season is well before or after most nurseries are open, and they suffer from what I refer to as ‘baby bird’ syndrome. They are rather ugly and awkward as young plants, but once planted in the proper place in the landscape, they will mature into a beautiful, full shrub. All varieties appreciate full sun, but will live quite well in dappled shade. Natively, they grow along the edges of woodlines, and along streams. A moist, well drained soil rich in organic matter is ideal, and they do not tolerate clay very well.
Witch hazel is also unique in that its extract has been used for centuries as a treatment for rashes, cuts, and scrapes, as well as many other applications, including an insect bite soother (perfect for those of us living in Maine!). Unlike most other old herbal remedies, this is still in production today.
Spring is truly on the way; believe it or not, the daffodils will be poking their heads above ground, the buds on the maple trees and forsythia will swell, and the witch hazel will bloom. Everybody get ready for the next garden season!