Come midwinter, gardeners are often straining to find any signs of color in the outdoor landscape. One shrub that’s always a pleasant surprise is the early blooming witch hazel plant. Depending on the species, this deciduous shrub either blooms in late fall after the leaves have dropped or in late winter before anything else in the landscape has started growing.
It’s the late-winter species, such as Hamamelis vernalis and H. intermedia, that I particularly like. These shrubs grow slowly to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. Not only do they have beautiful spiderlike flowers in winter, but their summer foliage is attractive and in autumn the leaves turn golden. The color of the flowers depends on the variety you choose. ‘Arnold’s Promise’ produces yellow flowers, while ‘Diane’ produces copper-red flowers. Even though the individual flowers are small, when they open en masse, they often cover the shrub with color.
Another species of witch hazel, H. virginiana, blooms in late fall. This common witch hazel is native and widely adapted, and its bark is used to make the common astringent found in pharmacies.
Witch hazel grows best in full to part sun on moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Plant shrubs after all danger of frost has passed, digging a whole twice the diameter of the rootball and as deep. Only amend the planting hole with compost if you’re planting on very poor soil. Keep the shrub well watered, and mulch the shrub to keep the soil evenly moist. There are few major pests of witch hazel, and the shrub needs minimal pruning to keep its shape. Simply remove suckers from the center of the shrub and cut off dead, diseased, or broken branches each spring. Witch hazel looks great planted with other shrubs in an island in the yard, along the foundation of a home, or as a wildlife plant in a hedgerow. Consider planting early-spring-blooming bulbs, such as snowdrops, under the shrub to complement the colorful flowers.