Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Drinking the Witch Hazel Kool-Aid

Here's a guest rant from Kansas master gardener, blogger, and veterinary surgeon James Roush. And be sure to check out Michele's beautifully-illustrated essay on this plant in the current Garden Design.—Elizabeth

Jelena+Witch+Hazel+comp+cropped+030511+%283%29

One of my many, many pet gardening peeves (which should be differentiated from the many pets that peeve me in my garden), is the manner in which the fiendish ghouls who create plant catalogues enlarge and enhance an otherwise insignificant flower until the catalogue reader (i.e. the gardener) is compelled to grasp frantically for the phone and credit card and purchase a dozen for their garden. Every Midwestern gardener who has ever drooled over a plant catalogue in the depths of a cold, snowy winter could name at least one, if not several, horticultural mail-order firms that are notorious for the practice. Close-up, voluptuous pictures of hybrid tea roses are moderately tolerable, but the act of magnifying tiny asters or honeysuckle until  the gardener feels that he or she could utilize the flower as a scented and comfortable spare bedroom just isn't fair.  Heck, even the surface of male bovine manure looks interesting when viewed at a microscopic level, but it is still male bovine manure when viewed in normal size.

I give you, as evidence of my dissatisfaction, the witch hazel. Witch hazels are hailed as the first blooms of spring in many areas, flowering boldly on leafless stems in late winter. Each flower has four slender strap-like petals that are always pictured everywhere as the most glorious, showy flower in all of creation. Every gardener just has to grow one—especially those gardeners who haven't seen anything but mist and snow and ice for the past three months.  For years, I indulged in the fantasy of adding one of these scented beauties to my garden so that I could enjoy the simple beauty of natural flowers without resorting to artificially forcing bulbs or flowering shrubs. Pictures such as this (at top)  drew me in: enormous, frilly, impossibly delicate, bright blooms that look as if they would cover your hand. I was told time and again that witch hazels were difficult to grow in Kansas, and in support of that wisdom, I admit that I have yet to find a surviving specimen in a public garden in this area.  But I couldn't call myself a gardener if I didn't at least try.  In fact, I failed the first time I attempted to overwinter an expensive specimen, but I'm now into my fourth year of survival of a 'Jelena' (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'), and I couldn't be more disappointed at the reality of the bush.

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Garden writers are no better than garden photographers in describing that reality for us.  The late Henry Mitchell, in One Man's Garden, stated "Nothing equals the hybrid Asian witch hazels for delight in late January-February-early March, depending on the weather….Usually, as in the variety called 'Jelena', they are orange-bronze in effect and surprisingly showy."  Showy?  I, for one, love Henry Mitchell's writing and use of language, but he failed me this time. If you, the reader, will think back really hard, you'll realize that you have never seen an entire witch hazel bush pictured in bloom in a book. They are pictured in toto only as an example of nice fall foliage color. The real reason the blooms are always pictured in close-up is that in reality they are only 1-2 cm long and are practically invisible from 3 feet away regardless of the bright color—as represented by the picture above, a sad and impossible standard to worship, even for a winter-starved gardener.  If one has to use a magnifying glass to view a flower in the garden, the overall landscape benefits of the plant are dubious. 

I don't know how many of you grow witch hazel and would agree with me, or how many have swallowed the Kool-aid whole and feel that I'm just a crotchety old gardener who expects too much and gripes too loudly.  But I submit to you that if we are all being truthful with one another, we would admit that witch hazel wouldn't be worth growing if it bloomed in June instead of February.  And in full disclosure, I am suspicious that my witch hazel is not actually 'Jelena'.  The blooms of my bush are more yellow than other pictures I've seen of the variety, and up till now the fall foliage has been uninspiring.  The most likely explanation is that I was sold a mislabeled plant and didn't obtain the variety I sought.   Which brings up another pet peeve …

Posted by on March 8, 2011 at 4:32 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
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39 Responses to “Drinking the Witch Hazel Kool-Aid”

  1. Dave says:

    A few days ago my son was visiting for lunch, and he questioned what was the the yellow cloud of blooms that he saw far down in the back of the garden (at least 150 feet away). Of course it was ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel, fully in bloom for the past ten days. Like Henry Mitchell, I garden in the mid Atlantic, and perhaps climate differences are the explanation for the author’s lack of success with witch hazel, but be assured that it is a wonderful shrub if grown in a suitable environment.

  2. Laurrie says:

    I swallowed the Kool Aid and I am as disappointed as anyone with my non existent, non fragrant total no shows on the witch hazels I grow. But just a few miles away, at Broken Arrow Nursery in CT, big mature witch hazels bloom in glorious abandon. Beautiful, cloud-like wafts of showy flowers, deeply saturated reds and yellows and coppers, and so sweet smelling, each cultivar with its own scent. They are gorgeous from far away and up close. I’m back on the Kool Aid.

    Maybe witch hazels have to be very mature to show their stuff? (Mine are still only 4 years old.)

  3. susan harris says:

    I couldn’t agree more – about how misleading and basically useless those ubiquitous close-ups are. They’d be fine if accompanied by full-plant photos but that’s rarely done.
    And I think there’s something else going on besides trying to sell plants in the overuse of close-ups – it’s far easier for photographers to find examples of single blooms and shoot them than to find examples of fully developed shrubs or masses of perennials and shoot them. Our loss.

  4. I have felt your pain, Dr. Roush. Gardening lust for the big and beautiful equates with lots of disappointments (maybe there is a lesson here?)

    My take: those blossoms are bad ass no matter how big or how profuse. Then again, I’m the type of woman who loves lichen, and alpine wildflowers.

  5. Paul W says:

    I can’t speak for Kansas, but in the Mid Atlantic region, witch hazels will knock your freaking socks off with their flower color and profusion. In my part of VA, they can be so full of flower that you can’t see through them. I don’t think it’s a muturity thing since the three gallon plant I bought last spring and never got around to planting is now blooming it’s head off in the pot. Bless your heart for living in Kansas. I love the “male bovine manure” line :)

  6. shira says:

    Like Laurrie, Broken Arrow Nursery is close to me – seeing them might win you over, but trying to replicate it may drive you insane!

    This is my current favorite http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/185351/

  7. jen says:

    When I research plants to buy I want to see how the entire thing looks, not just the flower. Even Googling pics often brings me with oodles of close up shots. It’s frustrating to say the least.

  8. Daryl says:

    I love my Witch Hazels, especially one that has hundreds of flowers that are about the size of a quarter and wonderfully scented. It’s still blooming now, as it has since January. I think it’s Hamamelis vernalis, but it was given to me as H. virginiana. Its only drawback is that the leaves persist in winter. I have 3 other Witch Hazels that give a decent, but more subdued show. I first fell in love with them at the Atlanta Botanical garden, so perhaps its a climate thing.

  9. Laura says:

    Vegetable catalogues do the same thing. They entice us with photos of beautiful productive food plants, with bundles of fruit. Rarely is that reality.

  10. They CAN be nice, but frequently aren’t. Cultivar is important (and, as you mention, mislabeling is rampant). I have seen “Arnold’s Promise” looking as bright as any forsythia. I’ve also seen many, many more extremely sad looking shrubs with only a flower dotted here and there.

  11. Dave says:

    I agree that flower closeups can be deceptive, but in whole plant photos flowers often recede into the background and plants look much less impressive than seeing them in person. The unique character of witch hazel is the ribbon like blooms which would appear to be hardly different from a common forsythia from a distance. Many flowers have distinctive coloration or patterns that are only obvious in a closeup, and in my garden I enjoy observing blooms from close rather than a distance.

  12. I’ve the exact same beef with my ‘Diane.’ It’s flowers have yellow in them when I thought they should be mostly red. Slow growing is an understatement, its flowering performance is spotty. From this, I’ve concluded a few things: 1. Witch hazels are understory trees, but they like a good root run. I think mine’s underperformance is to local root thuggery. 2. They need loads of water to produce a lot of flowers. When I first put mine in, I was watering heavily, frequently, and it put out. Since it’s establishment, not so much and, it must compete against the aforementioned root thuggery. 3. Witch hazels need a well-draining neutral to acidic soil with lots of loam. I figure this is the case because don’t have it. 4. They do not bloom as advertised until they are mature specimens. Given how mine is growing, that should be in another 20 years. 5. I should have bought Arnold’s Promise. Don’t give into reds or oranges. Just go with a solid yellow with fragrance. Don’t live in regret.

  13. Tom Fischer says:

    I wonder if plants at the limit of their hardiness range experience flower bud kill during the winter, thus leading to a disappointing spring display? In the Pacific NW, witch hazels typically bloom profusely. I also second the suggestion that plants need several years to settle in before they start to bloom heavily.

  14. Becky Robert says:

    As someone mentioned earlier, witchhazel in the mid-Atlantic are amazing! They striking and fragrant in the landscape giving a lovely preview to the arrival of spring.

    http://blogs.scottarboretum.org/gardenseeds/2011/02/ranking-hamamelis/

  15. tropaeolum says:

    I’m in Seattle now and the witch hazels are blooming like crazy. I visited the collection at the Washington Park Arboretum this week and…

    I am totally disappointed.

    For years, I’ve lusted after them. But now that I’ve seen them in full glory, I will never want them again.

    They’re boring. They don’t “pop”. The colors appear muddy or washed out. I expected to be wowed but my first reactions was “That’s it?”

  16. Karen says:

    I’m with Henry Mitchell on this one. At least in Brooklyn, the Hybrid Witchhazel show is pretty glorious this year both in close up and from a distance. The Kool-Aid is delicious and it isn’t spiked with anything pscyhadelic.

  17. I have some large, wild witchhazels at the edge of my wooded wetland. They’re a lovely novelty: the fall foliage is a glorious yellow. Then the leaves fall off, and there is just a little yellow left, the last flowers of the season. They are easy to miss against the other autumn colors.

  18. Corinne says:

    I work at a garden in NYC (not a gardener though) and our Witch Hazel is absolutely lovely right now. I saw some growing in St. Nicholas park and was also impressed by it’s lovely yellow color in contrast to the dull dead leaves all around. My suspicion is that you are not in the right area.

  19. Mary Vaananen says:

    I do love Witch hazels, but I am in love with anything in bloom right now–winters are tough! While not the blowziest of blooming shrubs I love the quirky multicolor spiders they produce at the dreariest of times. An established plant that gets the right combination of light and moisture will bloom profusely with varied amount of fragrance depending on variety, etc. What’s not to like about that?

    An up-close (of course) photo of ‘Feuerzauber’ blooms on my 6yr old Hamamelis is here at this link
    http://i1085.photobucket.com/albums/j423/mvaananen/witchhazelrain.jpg

  20. Emily says:

    I agree with the frustration at inaccurate representations of plants in catalogs.

    BUT, I love witch hazels. Mine are blooming right now (in Pennsylvania). But part of their showiness is that they are blooming now when everything else is still brown and gray. The flowers are not large, gaudy or voluptuous, just sweet, bright and a joy because they are here NOW.

    And you will get a better display after the plant has had a few years to get established.

  21. Marie says:

    No! Way!

    I ADORE WITCH HAZELS! When I heard you that you were dissing witch hazels over here I had to come and read it for myself.

    And what exactly is wrong about appreciating minutiae when they present themselves? Glory is in the details.

    I’m sorry for the shameless links but pleeeeeeease go and see for yourself:

    Being stopped in my tracks by a cloud of scent the other night in New York City. Source? Witch hazel on the other side of a garden fence.

    http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/2011/03/cobble-hill-flowers.html

    Witch hazels aflame in the new Brooklyn Bridge Park

    http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/2011/03/as-i-walked-out-one-evening.html

    Blazing witch hazels in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

    http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/2011/02/snow-flowers.html

    Question – under what conditions do you grow your Jelena (and it does look too all-yellow, a bit more Pallida-ish)?

  22. Anne says:

    Jee-zuhs. Witchhazels are not some vixen-jezebel hybrid plotting against us. Look, no matter where you live, by January we are all pretty freakin’ exicited to see ANYTHING flowering outside for days on end. Do any of us actually realize what a miracle that is?

    I start salivating in December to see the lemon-yellow flowers on my witchhazel. And this year (in Seattle) they endured multiple drops in temp’s. down to the high teens and kept blooming without batting an eye…for about a month!

    Mr. Roush, you were had if someone sold you a Jelena…those have a rusty-orange bloom. In our gray, short days, such a color is hard to see…so for PNWers, just stick with the yellow-flowers, you will drop to your knees and stick your nose in every little flower every single day in January and know why you are a gardener.

    It’s a fantastic plant if you have the space and buy from a reputable nursery.

    And while we’re on the subject of minute flowers on woody shrubs not worth a damn, let’s add Sarcococca and Daphne. What an absolute bother when their fragrance drifts into my basement and circulates around the ENTIRE HOUSE for several weeks as it is doing right now.

  23. Kaveh says:

    Clearly they are just not happy growing in your garden. While I admit the individual flowers are small when an entire large established plant is in full bloom it is an impressive sight. Particularly on a cold snowy northeast day. And the first time you smell the fragrance filling the air you will stop in your tracks.

  24. Ger says:

    Pallida is in full bloom in my PA garden now; however, every year I have to go out with scissors and cut off the dried curled-up leaves which persist until Spring so that the blooms can be fully seen and appreciated. What a chore; now the shrub is too tall for me to reach the upper leaves. it is still very pretty when not much else is blooming.

  25. Anon says:

    Find out what witch hazels are grown on the High Line. They’re gorgeous!

  26. commonweeder says:

    I planted ‘Diane’ last spring, but in spite of all my efforts at watering I will be amazed if it has survived winter. I bought it because I have a neighbor with yellow witch hazel at the far end of his border and when I drive by in March I think it is a forsythia – and then have to correct myself. I don’t know what cultivar he has.

  27. Wow, the comments here are just great…on both sides of the issue. I think I just learned a) to give my young plant more time, b) that I should try watering it more this year, c) that it may just not suited to my inland climate and thus it is a “survivor”, but not a “thrivor” for me. At least everyone was kind in not blaming the gardener.

    Or it could just be that the beauties of WitchHazeldom are in the eye of the beholder?

  28. Kristi says:

    I have a species witch hazel and while I like the form (nice vase shape) and I get good color in the fall, the persistence of the large leaves often covers the very small reddish flowers. After a very hard winter and lots of wind the bush is still about half covered with old brown leaves – not very attractive.

  29. Bob says:

    Plant the NATIVE Witch Hazel, and have blooms at Thanksgiving. It’s beautiful walking through a brown landscape, only to find sparkles of yellow. Take a close look… see the intricate details! Enjoy the contrast against brown leaves and branches around you.

    I think that maybe some folks are spoiled; or maybe they’ve just missed the point of flowers. Some garden folks seem more like the guy down the street buying a new car every year… each year it has to be bigger and more spectacular!

    Frankly, I think too much is made of “flashy flowers”; they all start looking the same (especially those double flowers of various kinds; don’t they all look like roses? …or something?).

  30. Jim Freeman says:

    On impossibly luscious close-up pics of what turn out to be squintingly small flowers, Dr. Roush is right on.

    On growing hybrid (x intermedia) witch hazels in Kansas (zone 6? zone 5?), yes, you’re pushing it, and they probably don’t bloom as well as they do here on the arugula-chompin,’ NPR and latte sippin’ East coast. You’re better off with a h. vernalis, which is an Ozark native.

    On mislabeled plants — arrrrrrgh!!! — but especially with witch-hazels, because a lot of hybrids come over from Europe and they lose their tags in transit or during a day in the Village that turned into a weekend of mindless carousing and waking up in their shorts on somebody’s couch . . . . uh, where was I?

    On watering and maturity; yeah, they need good moisture and, ideally protection from dry winds, especially in winter, and I’m guessing especially in Kansas. And the show does get better with age.

    On fragrance: some, like Arnold’s promise and those with a lot of h. mollis in their background, are dependable, but it’s a haunting, now you smell it now you don’t kind of thing, and a fair number of hybrids have been bred for color but not fragrance, which is MY pet peeve.

    Oh, by the way, I love ‘em!

  31. MHSDFred says:

    Mine had been in large pots for so long that the garden guy gave me both for the price of one. He didn’t even know the variety, but many calls to many local garden shops had failed to turn one up. The Denver Botanical Garden has several, but I’ve never seen them in blossom.

    I really wanted mid- or late-winter blossoms, but these come and go well before the reindeer are saddled up.

    So is it the soil or the climate? And how much available potassium is in Kool-Aid?

  32. Fab says:

    “I admit that I have yet to find a surviving specimen in a public garden in this area.” And despite that clear evidence that hybrid hamamelis will not perform in your climate , you persist in trying to grow the plant and then blame catalog merchants for their pictures? I buy variegated Osmanthus in late fall to place in pots around the house for Christmas. Each January, I cheerfully toss them in the compost heap. Why? because they are not hardy, I know this, and I don’t blame anyone else for my plant choices.

  33. NewPlants says:

    I was fortunate to have visited Jelena De Belder’s Hemelrijk estate in Belgium. Her and her husband were the ones that developed the cultivars ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diana’ as well as others. We were there at the height of witch hazel bloom and it was magical. Yellow, gold, orange, red and even purple blooms and a heaven scent fragrance in the air. It is easy to drink the cool-aid when you have such an experience. However, while the plant can be spectacular, I seen only a few really good flower displays in the Mid-west. There are several reasons for this: 1) The most spectacular cultivars tend to be less hardy 2) they tend to grow and flower much better in coastal maritime climates that have a long, moderate spring and 3) who the hell in the Mid-west is out in their garden in February to see or enjoy the floral display.

    If you live in the right climate and have room in your garden, go for it – Hamamelis can be spectacular and a most welcome sign of spring. Rare Find Nursery has one of the best selection of Hamamelis cultivars.

  34. UrsulaV says:

    You might consider the Mt. Airy Witch Hazel, a cultivar of a native fothergilla–zones 5-8, don’t know how it would do in Kansas. The flowers are white bottlebrushes, and signficantly larger than what you describe, and the fall color’s a knockout. Not quite the same as the hybrid witch hazel, but might be more satisfying if your witch hazel isn’t performing.

  35. Cheryl (and the cats) says:

    I refer to those catalogs as “garden porn” and I read them in mid-winter as a touch of fantasy and escapism. But I’ve learned since my youth not to expect that’s how things look. And any catalog touting stuff as “biggest ever” gets a call to take me off their list.

    Our witch hazels are a lovely teaser, with forsythia and then cherries queuing up. Ahh.. spring.

  36. Fab says:

    “On mislabeled plants — but especially with witch-hazels, because a lot of hybrids come over from Europe and they lose their tags in transit”.

    I agree that mislabeling is extremely frustrating,and irresponsible. I am not sure it happens a lot with the specialty nurseries who grow and sell Hamamelis cultivars. You see, most hybrid Hamamelis are grafted. The influence of the understock on flowering, leaf retention and even fragrance is rarely discussed. I can tell you that red and orange (more of a new copper penny color, not “orange”) cultivars will often bloom YELLOW and will bloom in the fall when plants are young. This does not mean the grower or seller mislabeled his/her plants. Further, Fothergilla discussed in a preceding post is more likely called Witch alder rather than Witch Hazel, minor point but worth knowing. Common names are often confusing, at least for me.

  37. Claire Lui says:

    FYI, Michele Owen’s great piece on Witch Hazel is now online if you guys want to link to it in the intro to this post! Thanks!

    http://www.gardendesign.com/how-to/witch-hazel

  38. Carolyn Mullet says:

    Whether or not a plant or flower is perceived as desirable is frequently a matter of placement. Witch hazels like many other flowering trees, shrubs and perennials will take on new importance if planted in front of something that shows them off. In this case, I’d suggest an evergreen backdrop. A good garden designer could have saved you a lot of grief.

  39. Syd Carpenter says:

    I garden in the mid Atlantic region and the witchhazels are everything Henry Mitchell promised. They begin blooming here in Philadelphia in February. The uninitiated immediately mistake them for forsythia’s gone mad…..until a closer look reveals closely packed, intense tiny fire crackers of color exploding up and down the outstretched branches. There is nothing more lovely than a witchhazel in bloom underplanted with snowdrops. And they only get better with age.

    Sorry Elizabeth, but I think you got this one wrong….

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