Plant of the month: Witch hazel (January)

Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel.

With its spicy fragrance and spidery flowers in yellow, orange and reds, witch hazel is an absolute must for the winter garden. What’s more, given the right conditions and care they can thrive in many gardens.

Pruning and training

Witch hazels need little pruning, if you have room to let them grow freely to their full size. Simply prune out any dead or damaged wood, cutting to healthy young growth. Remove any congested, crossing or weak shoots.

Remove suckers in autumn, after leaf fall, as these will probably be from the rootstock plant (most Hamamelis cultivars are grafted onto Hamamelis virginiana). Look for shoots that hold onto their leaves for longer into the autumn and originate close to or below soil level. Follow such shoots down and cut at the point of origin.

If you need to restrict the size of your witch hazel, then the following steps may help:

  • Prune after flowering, cutting back the previous season’s growth to two leaf buds
  • Distinguish the leaf buds by their longer narrower shape, compared to more rounded flower buds. Try not to remove flower buds
  • This pruning will encourage new extension growth and will also promote flower bud formation at the base of the new shoots

Witch hazels can also be fan trained. Tie the main shoots of a bushy plant to bamboo canes and attach these in a fan shape to horizontally-placed wires on the wall or fence. Leave the best placed shoots to extend the framework, but cut strong side shoots and badly placed branches to two leaf buds after flowering each year.

Propagation

Commercially, most witch hazels are grafted or budded onto Hamamelis virginiana rootstocks. Rootstocks and species-plants are raised from seed.

Propagating at home can be difficult. Cuttings of witch hazel are not easy to root or keep alive. Take softwood cuttings in mid-spring using very free-draining cuttings compost, such as 40 percent multipurpose compost, 30 percent perlite and 30 per cent composted bark. Cover with a clear polythene tent or provide mist-bench conditions to increase humidity around the cuttings. Provide bottom heat of 20ºC (68ºF). Rooting takes eight to ten weeks if successful. Keep them in the cuttings compost over their first winter and don’t pot up in potting compost until the following spring. Small numbers of extra plants can be produced by layering.

Cultivar Selection

Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Diane’ AGM: The finest red flowered witch hazel. It has a long flowering period throughout midwinter and is lightly scented. Height 2.5m (8ft). Spread 3m (10ft).
H. × intermedia ‘Jelena’ AGM: One of the best cultivars, coppery orange flowers appear in early to mid-winter. Little or no scent. Height 4m (13ft). Spread 4m (13ft).
H. × intermedia ‘Pallida’ AGM: Thought to be the best sulphur-yellow cultivar for garden use. Height 3m (10ft). Spread 4m (13ft).
H. mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’: Flowering in January, it has a good scent and bright yellow flowers. Height 3m (10ft). Spread 3m (10ft).
H. virginiana: Bears yellow, scented flowers in mid-late autumn, rather than in winter. Height 4m (13ft). Spread 4m (13ft).