“Whilst winter’s hand is yet heavy on the land the witch-hazels boldly put forth their star-shaped yellow blossoms but the native Hamamelis vernalis is over-shadowed by its more brilliant Chinese and Japanese relatives.” –Ernest H. Wilson, Plant Hunting, 1927
One of the amazing events each winter and early spring at the Arboretum is the blooming of our witch-hazel collection. With the warmer-than-usual weather we’ve experienced in New England, their bloom started much sooner this season than is typical—early-blooming species like our native vernal or Ozark witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and the Chinese witch-hazel (H. mollis) started breaking bud in mid December. As temperatures fluctuate through the rest of the winter, the witch-hazel flower’s four characteristically narrow, strap-like petals will open on warm days and curl up or wilt when temperatures drop below freezing. Their pleasant fragrance, particularly that of the Chinese species, will come and go with the freeze and thaw.
Any visit to the Arboretum this time of year should include an exploration of our striking and diverse witch-hazel accessions. To help you explore this unique collection, Manager of Horticulture Andrew Gapinski suggests a few hallmark specimens not to miss.
A truly grand representation of H. vernalis or Ozark witch-hazel (6099*D) lives along Meadow Road adjacent to Rehder Pond. One of the Arboretum’s centenarian witch-hazels, it was collected as a seedling from the wild in Missouri and sent to the Arboretum in 1908 by Benjamin Franklin Bush under the consignment of Charles Sprague Sargent. At the time unknown to science, the species was described by Sargent in 1911 based on his observations of this very specimen. The species grows natively in the Ozark highlands of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and in small populations in Texas and Louisiana. Although not as showy as its relatives, the sheer size and copious number of blooms place this specimen at the top the list of the Arboretum’s best witch-hazels.
Chinese witch-hazel, the least hardy of the species but also the showiest, boasts bright yellow petals, red calyx-lobes, and a divine fragrance superior to the others. Depending on the individual specimen, the previous season’s leaves on H. mollis can persist, appearing dried out, brown, and often obscuring the blooms even in late winter. It grows natively in the forests and thickets of central and eastern China. Visit the straight species along Meadow Road (698-94*A, 697-94*A, 362-76*A) and in the Centre Street beds adjacent to the hickories (215-2000*A, 273-29*B, 5281*A). Additionally, the cultivar selections ‘Princeton Gold’ (338-2002*A) and ‘Pallida’ (261-89*A, B, C), with its sulfur-yellow flowers, are also must-sees.
For more standout witch-hazel species, stay tuned for Part 2, which will feature two species with special historical significance: Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis x intermedia. Read more about the witch-hazel family (Hamamelidaceae), in a two-part profile by Andrew in Arnoldia issues 72/2 and 72/4.
Sunday, March 6 offers a great opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of this remarkable genus of plants in person at our Collections up Close event. Enjoy a guided tour of the beauty, history, and study of witch-hazels at the Arboretum and learn about the interesting features that make each species unique. Get outside and explore these unique winter blooms!