With intense colours and fragrance, these shrubs offer year-round interest, says Miranda Kimberley.

H. mollis AGM - image: Floramedia
H. mollis AGM - image: Floramedia

Witch hazel is probably now known best for its medicinal properties - its antioxidant and astringent powers being useful in the treatment of skin conditions. But as well as being an ingredient of many commercial healthcare products, it is also a valuable ornamental plant, especially in the winter.

Hamamelis are deciduous shrubs and small trees that produce clusters of usually fragrant flowers on bare stems in winter, or occasionally while leaves are still held in autumn. There are five species - three from North America (H. ovalis, H. virginiana and H. vernalis) and one each from Japan (H. japonica) and China (H. mollis Award of Garden Merit (AGM)).

The most commercially important in the UK are H. mollis AGM and its progeny, H. x intermedia, a result of a cross between H. japonica and H. mollis. They are popular because they are types that flower after the leaves have fallen, allowing them to be truly appreciated. They are hardy down to -20 degsC and the flowers, in shades of yellow, orange and red, can even survive encasement in ice.

They offer year-round interest. As well as attractive flowers, the shrubs have an elegant, spreading habit, nice autumn colour and lush green foliage that resembles hazel leaves. Their popularity in the garden can be a drawback, however. Place them close to a path or at the front of a border so that visitors eager to smell the flowers do not have to trample across lawns and beds to get to them.

Plant witch hazel into any type of soil, except shallow soils overlying chalk or limestone. It needs to be well-drained though because plants will die if waterlogged over winter. If planted into heavy clay they will sulk. Mound-plant to counteract this problem. They are traditionally planted in woodland partial shade but the Asiatic species can thrive in a sunny spot with adequate moisture. They need shelter from cold, drying winds and frost pockets, however. Witch hazels are susceptible to damage by late spring frosts.

In the first few years, water them during dry spells in the summer.

H. mollis AGM and its cultivars in particular show signs of stress otherwise, manifested as scorch on leaf margins.

As for pruning, some keep it minimal. The RHS recommends only removing any crossing shoots in late winter or early spring to maintain a permanent, healthy framework. Others keep the plants more in check, pruning to contain size and cut back the previous year's growth to two buds, after flowering is done. Another thing to watch out for is suckers, which arise from the American witch hazel rootstock that most witch hazels are grafted onto. Remove these when seen.

What the specialists say

- Craig Church, horticultural sales adviser, Tendercare Nurseries, Middlesex

"Witch hazel heralds the start of the flowering year with its nice, cheery, spidery flowers. A lot people have gone recently for the variety 'Diane', which has rich, chocolate-brown flowers, but it doesn't have the strong scent that witch hazel normally has. I'm a bit old-fashioned - I like mollis and the reliable variety 'Westerstede'. There is a variety called 'Orange Beauty' that we don't get in every year but it stands out when we do have it because of its rich orange flowers.

"Hamamelis can be a bit contrary when you are trying to get them established. They like free-draining soil and really don't do well in a heavy, clay soil. If they are planted in one they will sit and sulk for a couple of years, but will finally then get going. We recommend using mycorrhizal fungi to get them established. They are best in a semi-shady position, making them an ideal woodland plant."

- Robert Vernon, co-owner, Bluebell Nursery & Arboretum, Derbyshire

"Hamamelis are really lovely plants for interest in late winter and are generally hardy. Specimens on display to the public in our gardens here have survived temperatures down to -20 degsC with no damage. However, they do need a well-drained soil and they are not generally tolerant of very wet soils or sites prone to flooding.

"Hamamelis can also be caught on occasion by late spring frost and so may require careful positioning, depending on the garden. I don't have a particular favourite as they can all be interesting or attractive in the right spot."

In Practice

- Jonathan Rickards, landscape architect, Atkins, London

"I like and usually use H. x intermedia 'Pallida' because it is the lightest yellow and therefore provides the coolest contrast to the surrounding browns of winter. A distant backcloth of matt evergreen foliage sets them off best, but they are also useful when placed with low herbaceous planting, adding winter interest, and where their horizontal growth habit will be unaffected by competing canopies.

"The other one I use is H. x intermedia 'Jelena', with its reddish-strapped petals, but near a path where one can appreciate the scent and sight of its flowers close-to as the colours often blend in too readily to those of fallen autumn leaves. For commercial landscapes, grafted stock is a problem because, if it is not regularly inspected, virginiana will take over."

Species and varieties

H. x intermedia 'Aphrodite' AGM (H4) is a large, vase-shaped shrub or small tree with slightly crimped, sweetly scented orange-red flowers, produced in great abundance between January and March. Attractive leaves and good autumn colour in October. Height: 3m. Spread: 3.5m.

H. x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' (H4) is a vase-shaped, deciduous shrub or very small tree with lightly scented, long-lasting yellow flowers. It is a little later flowering than the other cultivars. The dark-green leaves turn vivid shades of orange or yellow before falling in autumn. Height: 3m. Spread: 3.5m.

H. x intermedia 'Aurora' AGM (H4) is a vase-shaped, large shrub or very small tree with long, strongly fragrant, copper-yellow flowers in late winter/early spring. The leaves are dark-green in the summer and have excellent orange-yellow or red tints before falling in autumn. Height: 3m. Spread: 3.5m.

H. x intermedia 'Barmstedt Gold' (H4) grows to be a large, branching, vase-shaped shrub that has brilliant, rich, golden-yellow flowers in great abundance over a long period in late winter and early spring. The leaves are dark-green in spring and summer, turning shades of yellow and orange in autumn before falling. Height: 3m. Spread: 3.5m.

H. x intermedia 'Diane' AGM (H4) is a large shrub with broadly oval, bright-green leaves up to 15cm long that turn yellow and red in autumn. Between January and February, it bears fragrant, coppery-red or orange flowers on bare branches. Height and spread: 4m.

H. x intermedia 'Jelena' AGM (H4) is a vase-shaped, deciduous shrub producing clusters of sweetly scented, coppery-orange flowers between January and February. In autumn, the bright-green leaves turn spectacular shades of yellow, orange and red. Height and spread: 4m.

H. mollis AGM (H4), or Chinese witch hazel, is an upright, deciduous shrub producing clusters of sweetly scented, bright-yellow, spidery flowers. It flowers earlier than H. x intermedia, between December and February. In autumn, the bright-green leaves turn soft yellow. Height and spread: 4m.

H. mollis 'Wisley Supreme' is a spreading deciduous shrub or small tree, with broadly ovate or rounded leaves and fragrant golden-yellow flowers borne in small clusters on the bare branches from mid to late winter. Height and spread: 2.5-4m.

H. vernalis 'Sandra' AGM (H4) is a large, branching shrub with delicate, honey-coloured, fragrant flowers in late winter and early spring. The new foliage is a splendid plum-purple when it appears in spring, turning later in the year as it ages and then showing striking red, orange and yellow autumn colour. This variety dislikes shallow, chalk soil and will not grow well in wet or waterlogged conditions. Height and spread: 3m.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library www.floramedia-picture-library.com.

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