JoAnne Skelly: Witch hazel blooms in winter, so why don’t we see it?
The days have been sunny and have me thinking of spring and flowers. In some areas the daffodils are poking up already. I miss color at this time of year. Wouldn’t it be nice to have flowers outside in December? A friend, Paul, mentioned witch hazel (Hamamelis) blooms in winter, an unusual feature for a plant, especially in Nevada. We both wondered why we don’t see it here.
Witch hazel has beautiful leaves in the fall in yellow, orange, scarlet and red purple. It’s “mop head” or “spidery” flowers are distinctive with their ribbon-like petals. Flower colors differ by variety and may come in bright yellow, light to dark red, orange-red, coppery orange mixed with red, or golden yellow. Varieties are often selected for the intensity of their citrusy fragrance. Even the seed pods are interesting. Flowering branches are good for cutting and bringing indoors. Witch hazel can grow as a big shrub or small tree, 12 feet to 15 feet in height. Depending on the variety, its shape may be vase-like, rounded, spreading, flat-topped or weeping.
Witch hazel grows from the East Coast to Texas, Missouri, Iowa and on up into Canada. Some varieties tolerate temperatures down to below 40 degrees. These temperature tolerances should allow the plant to survive here. December blooming is common. In addition, it’s said to be quite resistant to both diseases and insects. Why aren’t more of us growing this winter-flowering beauty?
The places where witch hazel is native have rich acidy soils that drain well. It’s found along streams and in moist woods in its native habitat, so as an ornamental plant it requires moist soil and regular water all year. Our soils are generally alkaline, low in organic matter and often poorly drained. However, the higher the elevation into pine forests, the more acid the soil, and the greater likelihood to find streams and moist areas on north-facing aspects where witch hazel might be encouraged to grow. While most sources say it will take full sun to part shade and flowers best in full sun, I doubt witch hazel will thrive in our intense sun, with our dry soils, low humidity, and highly desiccating winds, not only in spring and summer, but also in fall and winter.
If you have had success growing witch hazel, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me. Oh, to have winter flowers!
JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at email@example.com.