The fiery red, orange and yellow flowers of Witch Hazel trees can brighten up the coldest, greyest winter months. These citrus perfumed flowers look striking as they sit along the bare architectural structure of Hamamelis after the autumn coloured foliage has fallen.
Hamamelis are a small genus of flowering shrubs and trees, popular for their unusual vibrant spidery winter flowers that come in various shades of yellow, orange and red. For the lightest yellow look at Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida' and for the darkest red, look at 'Diane'. By the end of February, the buds are normally unfurling and the flowers begin to release their heady perfume. Hamamelis × intermedia 'Orange Beauty' and 'Diane' are typically slightly earlier flowering than other varieties. The flowers may look delicate but they are hardy as anything and even after being encased in ice they will soon recover their fresh appearance.
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. The flowers can be clipped and brought indoors for an extra display, lasting up to a week in water and providing a rich, spiced scent.
Many of us will have a bottle of witch hazel extract in our medicine cabinets. This well known extract comes from the American witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and was used by Native Americans for a variety of purposes. They used witch hazel extract to treat inflammation and the seeds, which taste like pistachios, were a popular food source. Witch Hazel is still a key ingredient for a number of healthcare products - including skin treatments to reduce swelling and bruising, for cleansing wounds and as a pain killer. The original 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. The flowers, that are often golden coloured and smelling of frankincense, appear on or around the 6th January thus coinciding with the Christian celebration of Epiphany.