Thursday, October 19, 2023

Season of the Witch

Hamamelis virginiana flower
 I love witch hazels, Hamamelis sp. And even though summer is my favorite season, I also love Halloween. So it's time for the convergence of those two loves; our native Hamamelis virginiana is in bloom!

For those not familiar, witch hazels are large, multi-stemmed shrubs native to woodlands of North America, Japan, and China. They generally grow 15 feet tall and wide, with a spreading branch habit. In gardens they prefer a fair amount of sun for best flower bud formation, but are shade tolerant. They are ideal for bright shade gardens as mid-story accent plants. They like a soil with organic matter, but are adaptable to any site that isn't dry or wet. 

Hamamelis virginiana ranges from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and south to Florida and eastern Texas. The flower buds of H. virginiana are formed on new growth and start blooming in October and can last into December. Flowers are generally yellow, but can be orange to red as well. They may or may not be fragrant; fragrance is affected by local conditions as well as genetics. They are mostly pollinated by flies and moths. Though they are pollinated in fall, fertilization of the ovary actually takes place in spring!  

Hamamelis virginiana flowers

Foliage during the season is green and shaped like hazel. Fall Color is yellow and often hides the flowers. Color starts in October, with leaves dropping by early November here in Wisconsin.  

Twigs are pliant when young (which is where the witch  part of the common name comes from - wiche or wych) and older wood is dense and strong. All parts contain several phytochemicals and extractions have been used for centuries as antiseptic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory; but so far those uses aren't well-supported by clinical evidence.

Seeds also ripen in Autumn, and the seed capsule splits explosively, ejecting seeds 30 feet or more. Seeds have a complex dormancy and can take two years to germinate. 

H. virginiana 'Little Prospect'

There are many selected forms of H. virginiana. 'Harvest Moon' and 'Phantasm' were selected as being heavy-blooming. 'Little Suzie' is a dwarf selection, growing to about 8' tall and wide. 'Mohonk Red', 'Vincent's Red', and 'Copper Curls' were all selected for having orange to red toned flowers. 'Green Thumb', 'Little Prospect', and 'Lemon Lime' are all variegated forms with yellow and green foliage. The first two are very similar, with wide yellow margins surrounding dark green centers. 'Lemon Lime' has green leaves splashed with yellow. All of them grow to around 10' tall and wide. 'Winter Champagne' was selected for being later blooming, in December in southern Wisconsin and March or April here in the north; it's also vigorous, and larger growing to nearly 20' tall and wide. Tim Brotzman thinks it's likely a hybrid between H. virginiana and H. vernalis, and I'm inclined to agree. 

Witch hazels really extend the season; H. virginana is the last thing to bloom here in the north and the other species and hybrids are usually the fist plants to bloom in spring. They also all tend to have good fall color. They're one of my favorite large shrubs and more people should be growing them. 

Hamamelis virginiana fall color

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