I’m confused. There’s witch hazel and then there’s winter hazel . . . which is which, and what’s the difference?
Hamamelis virginiana is our Eastern North America native, also known as Common Witch Hazel and Hamamelis vernalis, Vernal Witch Hazel, is the central North America native, both of which are hardy to zone 4. There’s Hamamelis mollis, the zone 5 Chinese native and Hamamelis japonica, the zone 6 Japanese native. To add to the confusion are the hybrids, Hamamelis X intermedia (a cross between japonica and mollis). What they all have in common are fragrant, quirky fringe-like flowers that emerge in winter, and come in a range of colors from yellow, orange, and red. And, they offer a lovely golden foliage display in the fall.
On the other hand, Corylopsis glabrescens, or Fragrant Winter Hazel, is a zone 6 Japanese native, Corylopsis pauciflora, or Buttercup Winter Hazel, a zone 6 hardy from Taiwan and Japan, and Spike Winter Hazel, Corylopsis spicata, is a zone 5 Japanese native. Now, here’s where it gets confusing to me. Winter hazels don’t bloom until spring (April), so why the name “winter”? Is it me, or does it seem more appropriate to name the plant that blooms in winter, winter hazel? Anyway, all Corylopsis sp. also have fragrant, but much showier bell shaped flowers (totally different from witch hazel’s wild and crazy blooms), in shades of pale to bright yellow, hanging in racemes on leafless stems. Winter hazel boasts a more interesting summer foliage, but lacks witch hazel’s glowing fall finale.
Now that I got that off my chest, let’s get back to witch hazels, the shrub that has it going on right now. The crazy, almost disconcerting flowers are erupting all over the naked branches, like tiny clusters of yellow coconut balls. You have to get close if the temps are low, but one whiff of their sweet scent and you’ll be instantly transported to spring. The colored tendrils can last over a month, and when they’re spent, the ridged green leaves start to open themselves to the spring sunshine. Hamamelis is a slow grower in my zone 5 garden, even in full sun with the moist soil conditions it prefers. After ten years, the tallest one is finally around nine feet tall (the other three are still playing catch up). Drought tolerant, witch hazel is a dependable, albeit rather sedate landscape shrub until it turns on its sunny gold autumn charm. With all my hamamelis, the only maintenance is thinning out a few suckering branches, which I do semiannually.
All in all, witch hazels are easy to grow, low maintenance and unparalled when it comes to funky, aromatic blooms that signal the end of winter and the promise of spring to come ♥