Looking for some botanical magic to break winter’s icy spell in the garden? Consider witches—late-blooming witch hazels, that is. In particular, variants of the Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and the Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica). The Chinese version is a beautiful, spreading, small tree (15 to 18 feet tall) that sends away the waning winter in February and March with its pleasingly fragrant, yellow ribbons of flowers. The blooms of the Japanese form have more twists and curls, and can range in color from yellow to a rusty red. As a bonus, Japanese witch hazel exhibits exceptional autumn foliage color.
Hybridizers have been busy combining the best traits from Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and the results have been many outstanding cultivars technically designated as Hamamelis x intermedia introductions. ‘Arnold Promise’, is a good example. This 20-foot-tall tree exhibits glorious orange-red autumn color, which is followed late in the winter with the fluttering of yellow, 1- to 1½-inch long, fragrant, ribbon-like blooms into the crisp, chilled air.
‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’ are two other H. x intermedia cultivars that can also warm the wintry air with their blossom displays. ‘Jelena’ has copper-colored fall foliage, and this hue is echoed deep in the winter with its hardy, sweet-scented flowers. The color of ‘Diane’ is even more intense with its autumn leaves turning a sunset red, and this is followed a few months later with a late winter show of long, stringy, copper-red, fragrant blooms.
Another H. x intermedia winner that can bring multi-seasonal intensity to the garden is ‘Ruby Glow’, a small tree (20 feet tall) that grows more upright than most witch hazels, and it does literally glow. In autumn, yellow, purple and red leaves smolder until leaf fall, but by February, the embers are rekindled in the form of small, bronze-red ribbons for flowers that defy the chilled air with their heady, sweet scents.
Garden To Do’s
- Looking for more magic beyond witch hazels to brighten up a dull, lifeless winter landscape? On mild days, visit regional arboretums as well as local nurseries with display gardens to see what kinds of sassy conifers and other evergreens they are using to liven up their outdoor beds with cold-weather interest and color.
- Wild vines can quickly cover up a landscape, but now is a good time to tame them. If they have become a nuisance, severely cut back such invasive vines as wisteria, wild grape, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, Japanese honeysuckle and bittersweet.
- If they were root-pruned last fall, small woody ornamentals can be moved to a new location now.
- Just before new growth begins on liriope, shear the plants to make room for the young shoots to come. Clippers will take care of the job in small beds, but for long border expanses, set the lawnmower up to its highest setting to do the deed much faster.
- Keep picking spent blooms off of pansies to maintain their flower show into the spring.
- If you had any problems last year with your lawnmower, weed eater, leaf blower or other such motorized garden helpers, now is a good time to have them looked over, tuned up or repaired by qualified mechanics before they are swamped with springtime business.
- Keep the bird bath free of ice and refill it with fresh water once a week