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Flowers in the snow? Meet the winter “Witch Hazel”

By SideStory Insider Elizabeth FitzGerald

Gardening and horticulture enthusiasts will be delighted to read Insider Elizabeth Fitgerald’s insight on the “Witch Hazel,” a plant that comes to life in the winter. 

Witch Hazel Elizabeth Fitzgerald

About the plant

Prepare to be bewitched by this gorgeous winter-flowering shrub. It has attractive, spidery flowers that range in colour. These have a delicious, subtle, slightly spicy fragrance and the foliage is also most attractive, turning various shades of buttery-yellow, gold, copper and varnished red-bronze in mid to late autumn. On very cold days, to ensure that you can really enjoy the scent of the wonderful flowers, breathe on them to warm them up and they will release their scent for you to enjoy.

They are comprised of four ribbon-shaped petals: the fruit is a two-part capsule containing a single black seed in each capsule which explode when ripe, shooting the seed up to 30ft. E.A. Bowles, the famous 20th century plants man, called Hamamelis the ‘Epiphany tree’ because it is often in flower on 6th January and its flowers are gold and beautifully scented – like frankincense.

Origin of the name

The name Hamamelis means “together with fruit”, describing the simultaneous occurrence of flowers and maturing fruit from the previous year.  The name ‘witch–hazel’ derives from the Old English word ‘wice’ meaning “pliant”.  

When & how to care for the plant

This shrub does best if really well mulched in winter, to reduce water loss, with the addition of plenty of humus to the soil. There are three collections of witch-hazel in the UK, one of which is grown at the wonderful Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire: the collection is large and varied and really is worth a visit. It could be grown successfully in a correctly sized container with correct growing medium on a balcony or roof garden in a city environment. However, it is probably best suited to a garden or parkland setting as it requires adequate space to spread its thin, spidery branches and obtain its correct shape.

There are several points of interest to note: the flowering period lasts a long time, for more than four weeks, with the flowers emerging in mid to late winter.  These shrubs are fully hardy and thrive best in full sun, in a sheltered position, although they will take some shade.  The additional bonus is that the flowers are frost resistant.

Witch Hazel Elizabeth Fitzgerald

Where to place the plant

Witch hazel makes a stunning addition to any woodland garden or in a mixed border and provides that invaluable addition to any winter garden, colour, scent and interest.  They look wonderful if underplanted with early flowering daffodils such as Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, blue-flowered Scilla, or hellebores. Finally, consider underplanting with thick drifts of honey-scented snowdrops.

Conversely from most bulbs, witch hazel must not dry out during the hot summer months. So perhaps keep any bulb planting to the edge of the shrub’s drip line or ensure that the soil around the witch hazel is well drained,  so that  you can continue watering the shrub in warm, dry weather to ensure that the roots do not dry out, and that the  bulbs will not  be adversely affected  by  sitting in wet  soil.  And again, remember to mulch well during the winter months.

Medicinal & herbal uses

The American Indians appreciated the amazing properties of this shrub. They used the leaves and bark of H. virginiana to produce a concoction that would heal swelling and bruising and could be used as a topical astringent for swift healing of wounds. The potion was made by coppicing the whole plant, boiling the bark, stems, leaves and wood and then distilling the resulting liquor. The plant is now used commercially in a wide variety of various lotions.

Witch Hazel Elizabeth Fitzgerald

Elizabeth FitzGerald runs The Plants and Planting School and leads bespoke experiences as a SideStory Insider. Learn more about her work and join her for a unique look on London and its horticulture.