Salisbury, MD. Nothing cheers a Gardening Granny more than having blooms in the house in February and nothing gives a Granny a more self satisfied feeling than being able to walk out into the yard, knee deep in snow, and cut some for free. "But, what flower fits the bill?" you are no doubt asking yourself. It's not a flower, my gardening friends, it's a small tree.
Let us introduce you to the wonderful world of witch hazels (botanical name: hamamelis). Witch hazels are lovely shrubs or smallish trees that mature at a height of 12' – 15', with an open, spreading growth habit. Granny Griffith has a pair in her yard that is about eleven years old and fifteen feet tall. Once established, witch hazels are very low maintenance plants and generally disease free. They do not particularly like pruning, so one should prune only to guide growth, remove suckers (wild growth that shoots straight up, generally from the base of the plants) or obtain flowering stems for bouquets. They do well in full sun or partial shade and, once established do well even in relatively dry areas. These perennials can serve as the backbone of your gardens for many, many years.
As you can see by the photographs, due to their natural open growth habit, witch hazels make lovely open or oriental style arrangements. The large spray and the single stem arrangement are of the variety "Diane" (H. x intermedia) with its dark coppery red flowers, and the mixed bouquet in the Margaret Holmes can includes four stems of an unknown yellow variety. The flowers consist of a group of crumpled petals, have a light fragrance and bloom over a long period of time. Granny's witch hazels start blooming in February and last a month or more. They are happiest in rich, organic soil but also do quite well in the normal sandy almost-soil we often find here on Delmarva. It is suggested that, if you plant in relatively poor soil, you pay special attention to getting them off to a good start with regular watering, light fertilizing and annual mulching. The dried up leaves of many varieties of hamemelis hang on all winter, attached near the source of the flowers. These leaves are easily clipped off for a prettier arrangement. Ditto for the bare stems at the ends of the branches.
When you clip off the lower branches and flowers of your stems that would be under water in your primary bouquet, don't toss them in the trash can. They serve as lovely compliment in small vases, tucked into corners where you would like to see a spot of color. The smaller arrangement you see here, including the Margaret Holmes "vase", is only about a foot tall and fits nicely into alongside antique boxes on the fireplace mantel in Granny Griffith's office.
There are five sub-groups of witch hazels for you to choose from. You, of course, will want to take into consideration the location, available colors and height at maturity before making your final choice. If you cannot find your desired plant locally, you have several choices:
You can ask your local nursery owner to recommend and/or order one for you
You can start an internet search of your own
You can buy a gardening periodical and search its pages for suppliers.
The Gardening Grannies recommend you take the first option. Keep in mind, the "box stores" do not generally provide this service. You need to pay a visit to your local independent garden center.
Your basic witch hazel choices include:
H. x intermedia: these large hybrid shrubs are 10 – 15 feet tall and often grafted. You should remove any suckers that spring up from the base of the plant. They come in colors that range from bright yellow (Arnold Promise is a good choice), dark coppery orange (Diane) and pale yellow (Moonlight). Some have brighter fall foliage than others and, if that is important to you, you will want to verify prior to ordering.
H. japonica: These are referred to as Japanese Witch Hazels and of a more upright, tree-like growth habit, sometimes reaching a height of 20 feet or more. They tend to produce smaller flowers than H. x intermedia.
H. vernalis, or Ozark witch hazel, is a smaller shrub native to the central and southern US, reaching a height of 6-8 feet H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel), tends to be a little bigger than H. vernalis, reaching average heights of 8-10 feet. It is reported to be an excellent cut flower.
H. virginiana (common witch hazel) is slow growing with an average height of 10-15 feet, sometimes more. Its bark is used in the production of the witch hazel that you find in the pharmacy area of your local stores.
H. virginiana's colorful fall foliage out-performs its smallish flowers.
Bottom line is this. Take the time to really think about what you want: the size, the color, the purpose. Get the answers firmly fixed in your mind then …. off your rockers and out there to find it!
The Gardening Grannies, a mature group of avid and Master Gardeners, live, love and garden on the Delmarva Peninsula. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and we look forward to hearing from you.