Ribbons to brighten the winter

In The Garden

December 26, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

I miss you like roses in winter" is a wonderfully evocative line in an old movie. The sentiment -- the wistful longing for bloom and fragrance in the bleak mid-winter -- is easily accessible to virtually everyone. We ache for a sign that if winter comes, spring can't be far behind. Fortunately, while roses don't bloom in winter, witch hazel does.

"Even here, with our severe winters, I've seen it start as early as New Year's Day," says Stephen Breyer, owner of Tripple Brook Farm in Southampton, Mass. "If it turns cold, the blossoms will roll back up and will endure subzero temperatures. Then when weather warms to 40 degrees again, they open back up."

Depending on species, witch hazel begins to bloom in late fall or early winter after the leaves have fallen, and continues through February, providing color during the drabbest time of year. Its fascinating blossoms -- scraggly little ribbon-petalled clumps, like skimpy cheerleaders' pompons -- adorn bare branches and light up the landscape. They are also easy to clip and start blooming in the house.

"It's not like forcing, since winter is when they normally bloom," notes Breyer. "So when they get inside, they open right up."

Long used as a medicinal herb by Native Americans to stanch bleeding after childbirth because it acts to tighten muscles, witch hazel is still a primary ingredient in many cosmetic astringents that clean and tighten pores. Additionally, ruffed grouse, squirrels and wild turkey love the seeds.

"The seed pods, which are interesting in themselves, burst open and can shoot the seeds out as much as 15 feet," says Breyer.

There are four primary species of witch hazel: Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and two natives, vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) and common witch hazel (H. virginiana). Also, there are hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia, a cross between the Chinese and Japanese species that boasts a range of cultivars, and H. rubescens, a rare native type. All are fragrant to one degree or another.

"H. mollis is so fragrant that even in winter, you can smell it at a distance from the tree, but the native witch hazels have a very delicate fragrance," says Steve Glenn, researcher at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Botanic Garden. "If you're walking in the woods, you can get this faint, spicy aroma wafting through the air."

Blooms range from legal pad yellow, whose burnt orange centers look like globs of stick-em to hold the petals together, to russet-petalled blooms with shades in between.

"What's popular now are the orange and red[-flowered] Hamamelis x intermedia," says Vince Faiella, nursery manager at Roslyn Nursery in Dix Hills, N.Y. "The natives, the virginianas and vernalis, are usually yellow-flowered. The copper and red colors are generally found in H. x intermedia varieties like 'Jelena,' which has a copper orange flower. And there is a new cultivar called 'Sunburst' that is an improvement where the flowers are brighter and larger."

In addition to the draw of winter flowers and fragrance, witch hazels often have beautiful fall foliage. 'Arnold Promise' is an older H. x intermedia cultivar with yellow flowers and russet and copper fall foliage, while the newer 'Diana' has a red flower and beautiful fading-sunset yellow, orange and crimson foliage in fall. Among the natives, the rounded leaves of common witch hazel glow like firelight while the leaves of H. vernalis 'Sandra' turn saffron then morph to a spectacular crimson-orange.

Witch hazels are hardy, adaptable and very forgiving of a variety of soil types and sun / shade positioning.


Roslyn Nursery

211 Burrs Lane

Dix Hills, NY 11746



Tripple Brook Farm

37 Middle Rd.

Southampton, MA 01073



Homestead Gardens

643 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD 21035



Speakman Nursery

12474 Still Pond Rd.

Still Pond, MD 21667


Meadowbrook Nursery

2055 Polly Spout Rd.

Marion, NC 28752



Gossler Farms Nursery

1200 Weaver Rd.

Springfield, OR 97478



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