A small genus of flowering shrubs and trees, popular for their spidery winter flowers that brighten up the cold, grey months. 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 common name Witch Hazel is thought to be derived from the Middle English ‘wiche’ and Old English ‘wice’ meaning ‘bendable’ or ‘pliant’ in reference to the branches.
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.
Hamamelis shrubs also boasts an architectural structure which is revealed in winter once the autumn coloured foliage has fallen. The fragrant, frost resistant flowers (which look like the output of an orange or lemon dester) provide colour in winter reaching a peak in late February/early March revitalised by the lengthening days and slight rise in daytime and overnight temperatures. Normally by the end of February, the buds are unfurling and the flowers begin to send out their heady perfume and can even be clipped and brought indoors for an extra display. Flowering branches will last up to a week in water and provide a rich, spiced scent. They may look delicate but they are hardy as anything and even after being encased in ice they will soon recover their fresh appearance. A trick for very cold days is to breathe on the hamamelis flowers first to warm them up. Once they’ve warmed up slightly they will begin to release their scent.
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. It is also a key ingredient for a number of healthcare products. 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.
They are super plants and look best planted above a carpet of snowdrops or hellebores, and are particularly shown off when viewed against the rising or setting sun.
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.
Cultivation of Witch Hazel
Hamamelis are easy shrubs and 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.