WICHE: Witch hazels already in bloom

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I can’t say enough good things about witch hazels.

By Jeneen Wiche

Gardeners get anxious this time of the year. Warm one day, cold the next, the sun coaxes open a little patch of crocus by the path, or we catch sight of an old landscape filled with waves of blooming white snow drops.

This year the show is sure to come early, and the forsythia are not the first to bloom, despite this oft-cited sign of spring! There are other early bloomers to keep us occupied until spring truly arrives.

Right now I am looking out the window watching our Cornus mas literally pop open. I noticed the buds had begun to swell in the last week after the most recent cold snap, and today’s sun has warmed some buds enough to show the yellow petals that they had been protecting for months.

It is surprising we don’t see more Cornus mas, or cornelian cherry, in our landscapes; it is the perfect small tree with all kinds of ornamental value. Disease and insects free, the cornelian cherry has mottled, peeling bark and is the first tree to bloom in late winter or very early spring (and if the temperatures stay on the cool side the bloom time can last for weeks). It has lustrous foliage and red edible fruit in the summer.

Although the cornelian cherry is not really a cherry – rather in the dogwood family – the tart fruit can be used to make anything you would use cherries in.

Fresh-from-the-tree or made into syrup for ice cream is a good use…and if you go to international markets, you will see the cornelian cherry in beverages and fruit spreads.

The genus Hamamelis, or witch hazel, has long been a favorite out here at the farm.

Some species bloom in late fall and early winter; others pop open on warm February days.

The bloom, best described as crimped, twisted and curled, by Chris Lane in his book Witch Hazels, has a whimsical quality. The blooms also offer up a spicy fragrance in the garden when not much else is going on.

The different species have subtle differences but on the whole the genus is a large, vase-shaped shrub at maturity with excellent landscape value whether you are looking to naturalize or formalize the landscape.

I can’t say enough good things about witch hazels. Sun or shade, average soil (certainly rich and well-drained is best), no pest problems, multiseasonal interest and a selection that includes H. virginiana, the common American witch hazel that blooms in fall, H. japonica(Japanese witch hazel), H. mollis(Chinese witch hazel), H. vernalis (vernal witch hazel), and a group of hybrids represented by, H. x intermedia.

This year most of these species have bloomed by now or just about now. They are always early bloomers, no matter the winter.

Corylopsis glabrescens, or the fragrant winterhazel, is from the same plant family as the witch hazel (Hamamelidaceae), and you can easily see the family resemblance in the foliage.

Most “hazels” have thick, sturdy leaves with a fluted quality to them…quite attractive, in fact.

The winterhazel has an open, sculptural quality to its habit, flat-topped but spreading. It is a multistemmed shrub but can be trained into a single stem, small tree, with diligent pruning.

The plant does have multiseasonal appeal, but the best part about it happens in early spring. Before the leaves emerge the winterhazel is covered in pendulous, pale-yellow blooms dangling from the wide, reaching branches. It is nature at its finest.

The winterhazel is virtually pest-free, likes rich, well-drained soil, full sun to part shade and is best situated in a protected area because it blooms so early for us.

Unlike the crimped, curled and twisted blooms of its cousin, the witch haze, a heavy April frost or freeze can damage the winterhazel’s blooms.