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

  1. Shirley Taylor says:

    Every Spring,early,before anything goes into bloom,I smell the loveliest scent,wafting on the breeze.I’ve always suspected a witch hazel but have never been able to point it out.

  2. Margaret Jumonville says:

    Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly tempted to try the late winter-blooming witch hazels. But, this winter proves that western Wisconsin still has strong zone 4 inclinations. I’ll have to stay with the native species.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Margaret. The natives are brilliant, and I must add more here to spots where I have lost some shrubs to recent weather havoc. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Liz Gassel says:

    I have three wonderful witch hazels of which you speak.
    Only big problem is that their leaves do not abscise. We have to carefully cut off all the dead leaves to really enjoy the flowers each winter/ early spring

    1. margaret says:

      Ye, they are marcescent, as it is called — holding on to old parts! I know, it drives me nuts, too. Some of mine are more so and less so. I should ask my witch-hazel collector exoert friends which are which and what else affects this trait.

  4. Liane says:

    I’ve been through a succession of witch-hazels in Atlanta over the years. Leaf gall has been an unsightly and consistent problem. (Yes, must run out and do Volck oil this week!) Lack of cold caused very few to bloom or very few blooms last winter. This year, my sole remaining specimen, an Arnold’s Promise, is well budded but not yet open — a bit of a surprise given the warm spate and all the other plants that are blooming early. Though I love them, I’m coming around to the point of view that only in a big garden where the witch-hazel is an accent rather than a central feature is it worthy in this area. I do adore the fragrance and sight of them so.

  5. Carolyn says:

    The witcggazel did not bloom this year, but everything else that is supposed to bloom in late March or April is in full bloom, mainly due to record setting 70s, a full 20 degrees higher than average!

  6. Helga G says:

    I had a witch hazel years ago given to me by a friend. Sadly it died on me. I’m planning to buy one or two this year from our native plant sale at the Unitarian Church.

  7. Linda Freed says:

    Have always had the desire for a witch hazel..love them every year whilst walking and then seem to forget.. I am going to a garden centre today to find one.. Do you think they would survive in a large pot?? likely no… I am determined to find a spot for one in “The Secret Garden”..
    Thanks again, Margaret for a great newsletter.. I look forward to it on Sunday mornings..

    Happy Spring..I think.. we avoided a predicted snowfall last night with just rain…Still some below 0c occasionaly.. totally unheard of.. what a winter.. Still… my clematis, snowdrops and bulbs arecoming fast and my wonderful hellebores have become the mainstay of my winter garden.. Bravely..they came through the worst winter we have had in decades..
    Linda Freed Vancouver B.C. Canada

  8. Bill Plummer says:

    I contend that our native witch hazel is not the last to bloom, but the first, blooming in October long before the Asian species or hybrids bloom. It is a major understory tree/shrub in my woods. I have none of the Asian trees, but I do have the vernal witch hazel in bloom, albeit not as showy.

  9. Pat says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I have ‘Jelena,’ ‘Arnold Promise,’ and ‘Primavera.’ I don’t have “Fothergilla,” though. If it’s one of your favorites, I must try it and see what I am missing. I am also enjoying some other fragrant early bloomers here in Zone 6b/7a — “Mahonia bealei,” “Prunus mume,” and the incredibly exquisite “Daphne odora” — not natives, mea culpa, but the fragrance is intoxicating! What a blessing it is to have a garden, especially at this time of year.

  10. Owen says:

    Hello Margaret,
    I love Witch Hazels- at this time of year you get to appreciate their intricate details against the bare branches.
    I wondered do plant nurseries shut down over winter where you are? You mentioned something along those lines above- is this for just northern areas or alot of the US?
    In the uk most nurseries are open all year round so we get to see lots of Witch Hazels in nurseries at this time of year to choose from which is marvellous to compare against each other in flower.
    All the best

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, our Northern nurseries often stop selling outdoor plants in November sometime, and then re-open around April 1. Some that sell holiday things stay open technically — but don’t sell garden plants then. Some that have greenhouses for tropicals and forced bulbs and such the same thing — only those areas are open, but not the outdoor nursery, where all the plants are covered or stashed in coldframes or somehow protected/winterized.

  11. Nancy Bellaire says:

    My Arnold Promise does not hold its leaves. It is loaded with flowers although in part sun. I don’t get brilliant fall color just a nice yellow.

    Scott Arboretum did a ranking of leaf retention of Hamamelis! Diane rated 80 % leaf retention, Arnold’s Promise 0%, Jelena 5%. I checked this list before my new purchase of Orange Peel, rated at 10%.

    Very useful list covers fragrance too!!!!!!.

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