Witch Hazel Shrubs

'Arnold Promise' Promises Early Spring Color

Image: witch hazel.
'Arnold Promise' witch hazel is one of the earliest-blooming shrubs. David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Witch Hazel:

Plant taxonomy classifies the witch hazel with which I deal here as Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise.' The cultivar name is sometimes misspelled 'Arnold's Promise.' This type of witch hazel is a hybrid plant, being a cross between Hamamelis japonica (Japanese witch hazel) and Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel).

Plant Type:

Arnold Promise witch hazel plants are usually treated as deciduous flowering shrubs.

However, you will often hear witch hazels referred to as witch hazel "trees" because, if left unpruned, they can grow rather tall.

Plant Characteristics:

Arnold Promise witch hazel plants are vase-shaped and may reach heights of 12 feet or more with a similar spread, although they can easily be kept much shorter via pruning. Fall foliage is yellow at worst, orange at best (grow it in full sun to achieve optimal fall color). The flowers bear a warm, spicy fragrance and precede the leaves, blooming in late winter to early spring. The fringe-like petals on these yellow flowers resemble small strips of paper that have just exited from a shredder. From a distance, one could mistake witch hazel plants for forsythia (another early bloomer with yellow flowers). In fact, as with forsythia, people sometimes force the flowers of witch hazel plants.

Planting Zones for Witch Hazel Shrubs:

Witch hazel plants can be grown in planting zones 5-8.

Sun and Soil Requirements:

Ideally, grow witch hazel plants in full sun to partial shade and in a well-drained, acidic soil amended with humus. But these bushes do display some clay-tolerance. Understory trees in the wild, witch hazel plants are suitable for woodland gardens, although you'll sacrifice some blooms and some fall color if you don't grow your witch hazel plants in full sun.

Outstanding Feature of Witch Hazel Shrubs:

Perhaps more important than the beauty of Arnold Promise witch hazel's floral display is its timing: blooming so brightly as it does in March (zone 5) when the landscape is generally still in its dull winter doldrums, this bush is a must-have for the four season landscape.

Uses in Landscaping:

Witch hazel plants are showy enough when in bloom to serve as minor specimen plants. I say "minor" only because, during spring (after blooming is finished) and summer, the bushes are rather ordinary-looking (although the vase-shaped form will be valued in winter by those who appreciate subtleties). Mix them into a bed of other deciduous bushes, situated within sight of a window. That way, you can enjoy an unimpeded view of these beauties in late winter to early spring (all you'll see is an eruption of yellow in the midst of a forest of bare branches!).

Pruning and Other Care:

Prune Arnold Promise witch hazel plants after they flower in spring. For winter protection and to shade the roots from summer's heat, mulch around your bushes.

Other Types of Witch Hazel and Meaning of the Name:

Eastern North America has an indigenous witch hazel tree, Hamamelis virginiana, or "common" witch hazel. The medicinal benefits of the bark of these witch hazel trees are well known through the "witch hazel" liquid we buy at pharmacies to use as an astringent. Unlike its Asian cousins and their hybrid, Arnold Promise, common witch hazel trees bloom in fall. But a second type of witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, or "vernal" witch hazel is also found in North America, in the southern part of common witch hazel's range. As its name suggests, vernal witch hazel trees bloom in spring.

European settlers in the New World used the branches of witch hazel trees as divining rods for dowsing, which is the basis for one of the explanations as to how witch hazel trees received the "witch" part of their name.

For the name ultimately derives from the Anglo-Saxon wych, meaning "bend" -- which is just what a divining rod is supposed to do when it detects water. But religious leaders had given dowsing such a bad name over the years that it was apparently easy to corrupt the name into "witch" (another name for divining is "water witching").

Witch hazel is sometimes spelled with a hyphen ("witch-hazel") to indicate that it is not a true hazel. Corylus is the genus name of true hazels.

So why the reference to "hazel" in the name, if it's not a true one? For one thing, the hazel had been one of the trees used in Europe for dowsing. In addition, the bush's namers may have found a resemblance to the leaves of the true hazels, such as contorted hazelnut.

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