As soon as the New Year is over, here in the Willamette Valley I start looking for signs of spring in my yard. I find them everywhere: catkins forming on trees, daffodils pushing out of the ground, and pussywillows—getting fuzzy. But the first thing to bloom is Witch Hazel. Witch Hazel is an essential in every gardener’s yard—to break the gloom of winter. It’s a reliable bloomer, and the flowers appear (in my yard in Oregon) in January! When you go up close to these stringy, spidery blossoms, they are extremely fragrant—a similar scent to daphne. The leaves and the bark contain natural medicinal ingredients. These are still used topically today for their anti-inflammatory properties for everything from psoriasis and eczema to helping soothe the wounds after childbirth, hemorrhoids, poison ivy, and insect bites. After having my first baby, I remember the hospital gave me a pack of witch hazel pads.
Hamamelis virginiana is native to the eastern and midwestern parts of the United States. It blooms in the late fall (November). Ornamental witch hazel plants for gardeners are more often the Asian varieties, Hamamelis mollis (Chinese) or Hamamelis japonica. My shrub is a cross between these two, Hamamelis intermedia ‘Jelena’. I purchased mine as a very small starter plant about 5 years ago. It was a few short branches. It languished, and grew slowly. Suddenly this year, it seemed to tap into a happy place (or I fertilized it), and all of the branches doubled in length.
Most winter witch hazels have yellow blossoms. These are cheerful, and make me think of forsythia blooming soon in early March. ‘Pallida’ and ‘Arnold’s Promise’ are two beautiful yellow blooming varieties. Many witch hazel shrubs can be pruned into a tree form. Jelena is more unusual, with the orange colored blossoms. Jelena is excellent for the plant collector, someone who wants something a bit more unusual. However, if you are going for color alone, the yellow varieties have more “pop”.
Two mysteries remain for me: 1) What pollinates these unusual plants in the dead of winter? The native varieties in the eastern US are perhaps pollinated by nocturnal moths. But my Asian hybrid here in Oregon….hmmm…I’m not sure. 2) Why don’t many witch hazels drop their leaves? They turn brown, and fail to fall off of the plant, looking unsightly. I manually have to pull them off each winter. Here are more photos of my Jelena….enjoy!