great shrub: intermediate hybrid witch-hazels

jelena hamamelisILOST A LOT OF SHRUBS in the fall of 2011, between deliberate culling required by the garden’s age (at that time, twenty-five overgrown years!) and a freakish late-October snowstorm that then took even more than were in my giveback plans. One silver lining—or should I say golden and coppery, perhaps?—was that spots opened up for some witch-hazels, or Hamamelis, and I’ve been enjoying the first rewards from my young plants like the intermediate hybrid called ‘Jelena’ (above) each late winter since.

By intermediate, or x intermedia as it would be stated in formal botanical Latin, it means that ‘Jelena’ is a child of two great parents: the Chinese witch-hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and the Japanese species (H. japonica). Their offspring (hardy in Zone 5-8) are mostly fragrant, and all bloom early and have hot fall foliage besides.

I have said before that if garden centers were open in February or March in cold-climate zones like mine, I am certain that early blooming Asian witch-hazels would knock the far-more-vulgar (and admittedly later) Forsythia out of the ring. I call the latter “vomit of spring.” Witch-hazel I call simply beautiful.

hamamelis pallida
‘Jelena’, with its coppery, scented flowers, is more horizontal in stature than another I made a spot for, the vase-shaped ‘Pallida’ (above). I’m figuring on perhaps 10 or 12 feet in eventual height, and about as wide someday. Some, like the best-known of all, yellow-flowered ‘Arnold Promise,’ are bigger.

The intermediate hybrid witch-hazels like a spot in full sun to part shade (more flowers in the former, of course, but spare them a too-hot dry location). Like Fothergilla and Corylopsis, their cousins in the Hamamelidaceae or Hamamelis family and two of my favorite shrubs of all, witch-hazels have handsome foliage that seems to resist most insects and other havoc (whether deer eat them or not depends where you live, as with many plants; Rutgers, for instance, classifies them as “seldom severely damaged,” other disagree).

My only caveat: Keep an eye on the base of the plant for the emergence of any suspicious, extra-vigorous shoots that may wish to overtake the desired cultivar. These witch-hazels are often sold as grafted shrubs, meaning the rootstock may try to out-compete the variety you want. Remember who has the pruners and take no prisoners on suckers!

Right now, I’m having trouble resisting running back outside over and again to stick my nose in their strange little streamer-like blooms. Can you blame me?

(For more suggestions of shrubs to plant for extra-early bloom instead of the oh-so-overused forsythia, which doesn’t happen here till about April, read on. For more of my “great shrubs,” ones I really love, I’ve archived them at this link.)

Hamamelis blooming in snow

witch-hazels by mail

January 28, 2012


  1. says

    Do you have any suggestions for smaller shrubs for near the foundation. We will be losing many in the spring when we have drainage issues dealt with via backhoe! We live in upstate NY in Zone 5b. I’d appreciate suggestions. The house is white, so no colours are off limits!
    Thanks very much.

    • says

      Hi, Barby. You will need to deal with the drainage or nothing will be happy, and don’t plants anything too close (leave lots of room for growth, and air circulation). But it’s really up to you — more about taste and also matching things to light conditions. Maybe look at my tree and shrub category of plants?

  2. Richard Peck says

    I planted a Witch Hazel next to my front steps about three years ago, exclaiming “I will be the first to have spring flowers on this street.” And this week I am! January is not even over and rusty orange ribbons are blooming from my Witch Hazel. She is just about three weeks early. Usually the first little blooms start in mid-February.

  3. Linda Zang says

    Thanks so much for opening my mind to Witch Hazel. Hope it will grow in North Carolina mountains okay. Will try planting some when I get there. I had no idea it was so pretty.

  4. ceres says

    Do you have full view photos of your witch-hazels that you could post? I have been considering adding one and Jelena is the one I thought I would like but Pallida growth habit maybe more desirable. Thank you.

    • says

      Hi, Ceres. Mine are young plants, just put in the ground so not full-grown by any means. Pallida is scaled down compared to ‘Arnold Promise,’ so more garden-sized if you are tight on space, and ‘Jelena’ is more horizontal than either, I think.

  5. Nancy says

    I was trying to find a list of foundation plants (for sun) that stay small. I have such a small space between my walkway and my house (in front) and lower than average windows.

  6. Liz S says

    I love my yellow flower Witch-Hazel in my front yard. It’s a bush that is pruned to look more like a tree. The leaves turn yellow in the fall. For some reason part of my Witch Hazel blooms early in November and then the other half in Febuary. Mine is not blooming yet.

  7. Terryk says

    Wow, they seem early for your area, enjoy them. I too would be running out the door to sniff them all day long. Do you know if these two normally hold there leaves?

    I have one very small flowered one, which the nursery did not have named, that the leaves hide the flowers and is in bloom now. I planted my paladia after a bit of a stressfull start. Not sure it will bloom this year. Arnold’s Promise is not in bloom yet. I am near Broken Arrow and think I will be adding more to my collection. By the way Margaret, last year I bought one, Harvest Moon, from Broken arrow that blooms in the fall and is supposed to do so when levee are off the shrub.

  8. Michael Dodge says

    Hello Barbara. One of the boo-hoo’s of living in Northern VT (Zone ~4) is not being able to grow Asian WItchhazels in the garden. I do grow H. virginiana ‘Harvest Gold’ from Broken Arrow that is very nice. I did try Jelena in a protected corner, but it rarely bloomed. So now I grow it and ‘Westervelt’ in containers and put them in my 40° basement until they open. We have the 5′ Westervelt in our linving room right now and it’s so lovely. ‘jelena’ doesn’t have too many flower buds this year, so it will stay downstairs.
    My Willow business ( is now on-line even though my website isn’t complete and not yet to my liking. We have 6-7 different Willows with pussies open in the nursery beds (in January in Northern VT!) and lots of stems cut and brought indoors! They open completely in 3-5 days. Our favorite is the Pink Pussy Willow. This is Salix chaenomeloides ‘Mt Aso’, with gray furry stems and delightful pink pussies that make great Valentine’s Day bouquets (and comments about the name)! The species is the Giant Pussy Willow from Japan; it starts to open in November and continues until late March with huge pinkish pussies from red buds on almost black stems!

  9. Michael Dodge says

    Oops, sorry about that! try

    By the way I love Forsythia. Nothing shouts “Spring is Here” louder that Forsythia. Unfortunately most people don’t know about when to prune it and get out midsummer and shear so it doesn’t flower very well. If it’s pruned hard immediately after flowering it will produce lots of long, strong shoots that are great for cutting and forcing into growth.

  10. LESLIE says

    To Liz S,

    Sounds as though yours is a grafted plant as are most and that the part that blooms in the fall is from the rootstock and the other is the top graft.

    To all check out the Broken Arrow website for cultural info on many cultivars. There are several smaller ones and even a prostrate one. Adam Wheeler spoke to the Hardy Plant Society the other day. If you get a chance to here his presentation, grab it.

  11. kk says

    Hooray!!!!! – Didn’t know where to put this:
    JUSTICE PREVAILS: The National Wildlife Federation Terminates Scotts Miracle Gro Sponsorship in the Wake of Tainted Bird Seed Scandal

  12. Valerie Gillman says

    Thanks for the links,Margaret. Witch Hazels and Corylopsis are my passion. I have a fresh yard with almost nothing in it and every shade will be in it!

  13. Lydia says

    I love my witch hazels,too. I have a garden area along our road frontage which contains 3 ‘Pallida, 1 ‘Jalena’ and 1 ‘Diane’ (more reddish). ‘Jalena’ is my favorite. They are underplanted with many late winter blooming bulbs, snowdrops, Eranthis, crocus, pushkinias, and early dafs. I call it my Cabin Fever Garden. My simple act of kindness to the passers-by. January and February are much brighter now. Glad the you and others are discovering them and passing on their beauty.

  14. Connie says

    I just became acquainted with ‘Jelena’ witch hazel on January 25 during a visit to Longwood Gardens. Such a subtle color and scent, but quite welcome in winter!

  15. Deborah Banks says

    I have the Diane witch hazel, planted in a protected wet spot at the bottom of the garden, and it is just starting to bloom also! It’s not open as much as your photo but we’re at least half a zone colder here. I planted DIane in fall of 2010, so mine’s a young shrub also. I’m wondering about the leave retention, like you show in your photo. The central branches of my shrub still have the leaves on them, just like in your photo, and all the buds are opening and showing the tips of the blooms. In stark contrast, the 3 branches on the outside of the shrub have no leaves on them, and all of the buds are very tightly closed. The outer branches had dropped their leaves as early as last fall. Any idea why the differing behavior? Do you think this means the outer branches aren’t going to survive? It did well last year, but didn’t bloom until May.

  16. Gayla Templeton says

    Not a normal year at all here in old Zone 5 Kansas where we have not had a flake of snow. The daffodils are about 5 inches tall and starting to form buds. The toad wart is 4 inches tall. The ground has not frozen yet and I wonder if it will. All the trees have buds but I have little hope they will not be frozen at some point. I wonder what this would do to the witch hazel as well as the rest of my shrubs? If it is this warm all winter I fear the summer heat. Nothing to do but wait and watch. I have opened a bag of leaves that I stored and mulched the heck out of everything although I’m not sure if it is to keep the cold in or out.

  17. Jamie on Long Island says

    Oh, I love a Witch Hazel! But almost nobody’s mentioned the AMAZING scent! It’s just wonderful…very fresh and clean…and I smile every time it blows by in the breeze!

  18. Stephanie says

    Hi–yes, I am wondering about the failure of witch hazels to drop their leaves. It looks like that has also occurred in your photo. People had this same issue on my Pacific NW garden forum on Dave’s Garden. Also, my friend’s two large witch hazels did not drop their leaves…..nor my smaller ‘Jelena’. It takes quite a tug to pull them off…..but they are so unsightly on the very large witch hazels.—-hanging there dry, obscuring the new blooms….What is the right action to take? Pull the leaves off by hand in the fall?

  19. carole says

    i like forsythia….i think they’re worthy of respect, love and admiration… well as the witch hazel…i’m always happy to see them bloom!

    • says

      Hi, Carole. Love witchhazel. Love forsythia viewed from a distance — there are some down the road here that I can see — but they are just too boring after they finish blooming to rate a proper spot in the yard, I think. But yes, quite something when they bloom so defiantly and brashly! See you soon again, I hope.

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