Adrian Higgins - Holding On to Winter Under Witch Hazel's Spell

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 12, 2009

Edging into spring, we find the first dark, bulbous irises poking out of the ground, quiet and hard to spot but trumpeting the impending floral stampede. The warmth earlier this week already has spurred the crocuses, first daffodils and magnolias. This is a bittersweet moment, really. I don't want winter to end.

I like the sense of calm late in the season, when the fish lumber at the bottom of the pond and the songbirds animate the feeders but haven't found their spring voice. The best moment is when you catch the unexpected and elusive scent of a hidden flower. There are a handful of shrubs that flower madly in February into March, not as heralds of spring but as true creatures of the winter. Their blossoms are buffeted by the cold and often beaten back hard by freezes, yet these brave plants bloom their socks off. In many, the scent is thick and far-ranging.

Every garden should have a witch hazel. The common and vernal witch hazels are big native shrubs, but most of the ornamental breeding in recent decades has been with crosses of the Japanese witch hazel, noted for its fall leaf color, and the highly fragrant Chinese witch hazel. Their spidery flowers come in shades of copper, red, orange, gold and yellow, the latter being the most conspicuous. A mature free-flowering variety, positioned so the petals are backlit in the early morning or late afternoon, is a sight to behold. The longer the petals -- little straps, really -- the more eye-catching.

One of the most popular hybrids, Arnold Promise, is valued for its showy yellow blooms, but it has its drawbacks. It needs a lot of real estate; it flowers late, defeating the point a bit; and it is susceptible to a leaf blight disease now afflicting witch hazels.

I once grew a fabulous hybrid called Diane, with red flowers in February and the most intense, orange-red foliage in the fall. I pruned and shaped it over the years, but it got too big for its allotted corner, so I took it out. It had an annoying habit of not dropping its shriveled leaves; I would cut off each one so the flowers could be seen on naked branches.

Too shady a location, diagnosed Brenda Skarphol, who looks after the extensive collection of witch hazels at Green Spring Gardens, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. Although thought of as a woodland shrub, a witch hazel behaves better in an open, sunny location, she said, where leaf blight is also less of a problem.

As she showed me most of more than 40 varieties on display at Green Spring, I got the sense that hybridizers have introduced too many that are too similar, especially the yellow-flowered varieties. But some are stunning.

Even as a youngster, the variety named Angelly is superb, full of sweetly scented, long-petaled blossoms. They are lime yellow and sparkle in the winter sun. Another of Angelly's attributes is its relative dwarf size, reaching about six feet at maturity. It was bred in Holland by the late Jan Van Heijningen, who introduced two other superior varieties, Aurora and Aphrodite. Aurora has long yellow petals, tinged red at their base, and a fragrance Skarphol describes as "heavenly and sweet." The leaves have an unusual and pretty apricot color in fall. Aphrodite isn't so scented but has thick clusters of orange-red petals. Its one flaw is a tendency to bloom heavily one year and lightly the next. Last year was a dud, but that followed two years of drought. This year, the shrub is a showboat.

The variety Bernstein is a stick of a thing, but even as its flower show wanes, the golden orange blooms are long and thick. As a mature shrub, it would be superb, though it is not the most fragrant.

Skarphol stops to point out another young witch hazel, this one netted to protect against deer. It's called Strawberries and Cream, with unusual yellow-and-red flowers but not heavily fragrant. "One of my favorites, beautiful when backlit," she said.

Orange Peel is another knockout witch hazel, strongly perfumed with clear orange blooms that begin in late January.

In form, some witch hazels are more vase-shaped than others, but few are really upright; most are spreading, and it's a trait to play up with formative pruning. But some arrive in need of balancing branches that just aren't there. Skarphol said you can take a knife and make a little slice on a branch to encourage a shoot to restore some symmetry. I would much prefer to examine nursery stock before buying to find one I like, an option not available when you order through the mail.

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