Hamamelis

Witch hazels now come in a variety of warm and vibrant tones.

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Hamamelis, or witch hazels, are one of the real delights of the winter garden, their sweetly fragrant ribbon-like four-petalled blooms that wreath their bare branches are always guaranteed to welcome in the New Year over a number of weeks. These deciduous shrubs from the USA, China and Japan are also known for their striking orange, yellow and red autumn colours.  

From the four species, namely the two American, H. vernalis and H. virginiana, and two Asian, H. japonica and H. mollis, it is H. intermedia a hybrid of the two latter species which has yielded most new forms and as a consequence is the most widely grown. Recent selection and cross-breeding, also using the smaller flowered American varieties, has generated forms in red, orange and bronze tones, in some cases overlaid with two or more shades. Not all rustic-toned varieties are as strongly fragrant as their yellow counterparts, such as popular H. intermedia ‘Pallida’, so take a sniff or ask for advice before buying them.

Hamamelis are expensive, particularly if you buy a specimen-sized plant, as they are grafted and take time to grow. Some of the newer and novel varieties can be more difficult to come by, so you’ll need to be patient and search them out. They grow in most moist, well-drained soils, happiest in those which are acid to neutral, but will struggle on shallow chalk soil which dries out in summer. While thriving in semi-shade they flower more productively in full sun, but help keep soil moist in summer by mulching. Being surface rooting, spread out rather than bury roots when planting.

Although you can leave them to achieve their ultimate size and spread, around 13ft over 10 or more years, you can keep them more compact by pruning them after flowering. Simply cut back flowering shoots to two buds, stimulating more side shoots to form, which will flower the following winter. Not only will this will increase the amount of flower, it will also keep plants more compact. Thin out over congested growth from time to time.