What a treat to see the wispy, sunshine-yellow blooms of witch hazel aglow in the late winter garden, long before crocuses and daffodils begin to emerge.
In mild winters, witch hazel will actually come into flower in late January or February. No matter the weather, witch hazel can be counted on for blooms by mid-March.
I shot these last week in the Perennial Garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, as I was heading into the orchid show.
This native shrub has spidery, fragrant flowers in a range of citrus colors, from yellow to apricot-red. It often grows to the size of a small tree.
Known botanically as Hamamelis, witch hazel will tolerate full sun or a good deal of shade. Like flowering dogwoods and Japanese maples, these versatile deer-resistant shrubs make a good understory plant near oaks, beeches and pines.
Their bright colors look particularly good with an evergreen backdrop or with early-blooming bulbs such as snowdrops and winter aconite.
Witch hazels also do well along a stream or around the edges of woods. Try to avoid planting them in windy sites. In a suburban yard, plant them where you can see and smell them up close, perhaps along a walkway or near where you park the car.
Give them rich organic soil and keep them well watered the first year or two. In general, they don’t need much pruning or other maintenance.
After the blooms fade in spring, interesting 3- to 4-inch green leaves with scalloped edges emerge all along the brownish-gray branches. In fall, the yellow leaves light up the landscape.
I’ve heard some very good gardeners, including Florence Katzenstein of Upper Nyack and Marco Polo Stufano of Riverdale, say they would never have another garden without witch hazel. For more than 30 years, Stufano was director of horticulture at the Wave Hill public garden in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
I finally added a witch hazel shrub to my garden last fall and now I can’t wait to get two or three more.