Wonderful Witch Hazel Trees with fiery explosions of red, orange and yellow flowers. Hamamelis provide warm autumn colour with yellow and red foliage followed by the bright coloured perfumed flowers for which they are so well known.
Hamamelis are a small genus of flowering shrubs and trees, popular for their unusual vibrant spidery winter flowers that brighten up the cold, grey months. By the end of February, the buds are normally unfurling and the flowers begin to release their heady perfume. They may look delicate but they are hardy as anything and even after being encased in ice they will soon recover their fresh appearance.
The flowers can even be clipped and brought indoors for an extra display, lasting up to a week in water and providing a rich, spiced scent. Hamamelis shrubs also feature colourful autumn foliage and once these have fallen, the architectural structure is revealed.
Hamamelis do well in most gardens other than where there is only shallow, chalk soil. They prefer acid to neutral soil but can still do well on slightly alkaline soils. If their leaves are a bit yellow (because of high pH) treat them with chelated iron. Grow in a sunny, open position and ideally in a fairly sheltered spot because the young leaves can be burned by strong winds (but the flowers will be fine!). Use plenty of organic matter and keep well watered in hot summers (especially when young). To restrict the size, you can plant in a container. Try not to bury the graft joint or it will product suckers.
If you wish to control your Witch Hazel and maintain it as a small shrub rather than tree you can prune back the previous season’s growth to two leave buds after flowering. It is important to distinguish between leaf and flower buds when doing this. Leaf buds are long and narrow whereas the flower buds are more rounded. This type of pruning should only be carried out on established Hamamelis shrubs. For more pruning and aftercare advice, see our Help & Advice section. Alternatively, you can let hamamelis grow to their full size with little pruning.
Many of us will have a bottle of witch hazel extract in our medicine cabinets but this wonderful winter flowering shrub is often overlooked for the garden. The well-known witch hazel extract comes from the American witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and was used by Native Americans for a variety of purposes. The seeds, which taste like pistachios were a popular food source among Native Americans. The orginal Hamamelis Virginiana is not (to our knowledge) available in the UK.
Around the turn of the 19th century, Hamamelis japonica with it's larger flowers and more vibrant autumn colour, was introduced to the UK and a Chinese species, Hamemelis mollis was first sold by Veitch & Sons in 1902. The latter has smaller flowers but a stronger scent. Plant breeders combined the best attributes of each resulting in Hamamelis intermedia from which many of today's varieties are drawn with a wide range of flower colour from lemon to deep red, all very hardy and highly scented.
E.A Bowles the famous 20th Century gardener referred to witch hazel as the Epiphany tree as the flowers appear on or around the 6th January with many varieties producing golden flowers smelling of frankincense.
Witch Hazel is still a key ingredient for a number of healthcare products - including skin treatments to reduce swelling, help to reduce bruises, cleansing wounds and it can also be used as a pain killer.