As gardeners develop an appreciation of native trees and shrubs, many become more willing to try these plants in their own landscapes. The unusual features of the witch hazel family make it an excellent choice for such adventurous gardeners. Witch hazel offers yellow and red fragrant flowers blooming at unconventional times; the ability to thrive in moist, claylike soil; fabulous fall color and tolerance of sunny or shady conditions.
Witch hazels can be seen growing in the wild in colonies along streams, in lowlands and along riverbanks from Wisconsin to Quebec and south to northern Georgia and Missouri. They have large, simple, toothed leaves on multiple crooked branches that form a rounded outline in the landscape.
Witch hazels are quite effective as backdrops, hedges and screens or as specimen plants in more open areas. Their upright-spreading shape encourages the underplanting of ground covers or early spring bulbs. Witch hazels tolerate city conditions better than most native shrubs.
While witch hazels can be showy in three seasons, certainly their fragrant flowers that bloom at unusual times are of primary interest. They can be the latest (October) or earliest (February to March) shrubs to bloom, with their blossoms emerging while the brown seed capsules from the previous year are still attached to the branches.
The common or Virginia witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is a native of Illinois woodlands and can be found growing in shady sections of McDonald Woods as an understory tree. It is the last tree/shrub to bloom in the fall, usually in mid- to late October, with fragrant yellow, straplike petals. Gardeners can grow this witch hazel in their own gardens, where its oval to round form will reach up to 25 feet. Its clean, bright green leaves turn yellow in fall and often hide the spicy flowers blooming at the same time. The seed capsules discharge ripe seeds with an incredible explosive popping sound that can be heard more than 30 feet away.
The vernal witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, is native to stream banks of the south-central portions of this country. It is the earliest shrub to flower in spring, and its small, yellow-red blooms can be prolonged in cold weather. At the Garden, it typically blooms from late February to early April, depending on the weather. It can form dense, multi-stemmed colonies along streams by sending out suckers. The medium green leaves turn a spectacular golden yellow in fall. It is more tolerant of higher pH soils than H. virginiana and grows well in poorly drained clay soils. The many plants situated in the Garden's parking lots are testament to this tolerance.
'Sandra' is particularly showy and can be seen in the Vista Garden of the English Walled Garden. Its young leaves emerge purple; the flowers are brilliant cadmium yellow, and the fall color is pure gold.
The Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, is less hardy than the natives. Grown in the warmer parts of zone 5 to 8, it is the most fragrant of them all. It is one of the earliest plants to flower in Illinois, with a profusion of slightly larger, yellow flowers appearing in late winter to very early spring. The downy, gray-green leaves turn yellow-orange in autumn. Specimens are located in Farwell Perennial Garden, in the Japanese Garden and at the entrance to the Lavin Sun Plant Evaluation Garden.
'Pallida' is a cultivar that shows great promise. At 8 to 15 feet, it prefers moist, slightly acid, organic soil.
The vigorous hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) are crosses of the Japanese and Chinese shrubs. Blooming from late February to March, their yellow-red petals unfurl on warm days but curl up tightly during chilly nights. The fall foliage is an attractive yellow-orange, a nice contrast to the bright green leaves of summer. Look for these selected cultivars at the Garden:
'Arnold Promise', featuring long-lasting, bright yellow fragrant flowers, can be found in groups along the northern end of the West road.
'Jelena' has flowers in an unusual blend of red, yellow and orange. The fall color of its foliage repeats this color scheme. Look for 'Jelena' in the English Oak Meadow and at the entrance to Lavin Sun Plant Evaluation Garden.
'Sunburst' features profuse yellow blooms with less fragrance than others. It can be found in the Sensory Garden.