Often the signs of spring are subtle in plants. One such example is Witchhazel. This plant has beautiful flowers in early spring, but is sometimes missed due to their subtlety. Let's look at this plant closer. You may know witchhazel by its by-product, which is used in sweet-smelling lotions, eye-gels, and other skin products.
Witchhazel (Hamamalis sp.) is a multi-stemmed shrub reaching 6 to 10 feet high and wide. Witchhazel is one of those plants that offer something of interest in each season. During the summer, it has medium to dark green foliage and interesting capsule fruit. Fall brings beautiful leaf colors of golden-yellow, red, or orange depending on the species. Winter is special for this plant because that is when it flowers. Yellow to red, 4-petaled flowers appear sometime from January through March and are effective for 3 to 4 weeks. To achieve this long bloom-time, the petals roll up on very cold days and avoid freeze damage.
The most commonly grown witchhazel is the Vernal Witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis). This native shrub offers several desirable ornamental traits. The pungently fragrant flowers are the smallest of all witchhazels, with each petal only about one-half inch long. Flower colors vary from yellow and orange to red and open in January and February. This plant is very adaptable to moist or dry soils and is a great plant for naturalizing.
Finally, one witchhazel actually flowers in late fall from October to as late as December. The common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is usually found as an understory plant in woodlands. Unfortunately, the flowers are rarely seen because fall foliage color develops as the flowers appear.
In addition to being a beautiful plant, witchhazel also adds ecological diversity to a landscape. Its brittle seeds are a food source for critters such as squirrels. Its low, lateral branches are used by many nesting birds, including wood thrushes and flycatchers. According to research done by Dr. Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware, this native shrub is a food source for 62 different native butterfly caterpillars.
I plan to add both the common and vernal witchhazel to my landscape in a place that is easily seen for fall and winter viewing.
If you want additional winter interest in your garden, consider adding witchhazel. You'll enjoy it all year long.