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Winter Blooming Witch Hazels

Witch HazelOne of the most over-looked winter flowering shrubs is the witch hazel, hamamelis. What I particularly like about this plant is its unique flowers, unusual flowering season and pleasant fragrance.

Have you ever noticed that almost all winter flowering plants have fragrance. Of course, that is 'Mother Nature's' way of attracting insects for winter pollination. It benefits the home gardener by providing nice garden fragrance during the winter, and the advantage of having cut fragrant flowers for use in indoor winter flower arrangements. The witch hazels offer all of these attributes.

The flowers have a unique shape, they appear rather spidery and look just right on the branches of the plant. Although the flowers are not as conspicuous as some winter flowering plants, they do draw one's attention to the plant because of their rich fragrance and distinctive growing habit. Once they are in bud the branches can be cut and forced into bloom, much the same as you would force the branches of forsythia or quince.

For years, the most popular variety was hamamelis mollis, better known as the 'Chinese witch hazel'. Today, there are a dozen or more varieties, but only a few are commercially grown in this region. A couple of the most popular ones are 'Jolena' with showy coppery-orange flowers; 'Ruby Glow' with its coppery-red flowers; and fire charm with its orange-red flowers. The Chinese witch hazel has golden yellow flowers. Most flower between December and early March.

Another variety hamamelis virginiana, 'the American witch hazel', is found growing native from Canada to Georgia and as far west as Nebraska and Arkansas. The golden-yellow flowers are very fragrant.

Hamamelis are deciduous plants (meaning they lose their leaves over-winter). Most varieties are large shrubs or small trees, with some varieties attaining a height of up to 25 feet at maturity. The actual height can easily be kept down to 8 to 10 feet with simple pruning and shaping.

Since they are rather large shrubs or small trees, with large leaves, it's best to use them as background shrubs in borders, or in group plantings for summer screening.

This is one plant that does very well in a location with full sun, or part sun and shade exposure. In the places where they grow naturally, the soil tends to be a little on the moist side, and contains considerable organic humus.

When preparing the soil for planting, it is a good practice to mix generous amounts of organic humus with the planting soil. Peat moss, compost or processed manure would be excellent sources of organic humus. The addition of one or more of these organic humuses will help retain needed moisture for your plant.

Should a newly purchased plant be root-wrapped in burlap, be sure to remove the burlap completely, unless the soil in the root ball is too loose. If that happens, simply loosen the burlap and pull it away from the top of the root ball, after the plant has been place in the planting hole.

Witch hazels have an attractive branching habit and seldom require any pruning. Selective cutting of the branches for flower arranging should not ruin the shape of the plant. However, if minor pruning is necessary to keep the plant growing in a uniform shape, it should be done during the winter dormant season months of November through February.

Witch hazels are not always readily available. In fact, while I was writing this article I contacted six nurseries and only two of them had them in stock. However, two others said their stock had not yet arrived. If your favorite garden place does not have them, they will often special-order them for you. Check size and price first.

I hope you'll take out a few minutes this winter, and take a look at the interesting witch hazels. They may be an ideal plant to add to your winter garden.

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