February: Vernal Witch Hazel

In mid to late winter a haze of red and yellow spreads across vernal witch hazel. There are other early blooming shrubs with showier flowers, such as the popular forsythia, but nothing brings new color to the landscape earlier than vernal witch hazel.

Image source: bio.brandeis.edu

Image source: bio.brandeis.edu

There are three main types of witch hazels available commercially. Common witch hazel is native to the eastern U.S. (including Indiana), but it blooms late in the fall, so we aren't interested in it for February. Vernal witch hazel is native to the Ozarks where it grows mostly in rocky soils near streams, and it is one of the early spring bloomers. It is adaptable to many other conditions to, so as long as your soil drains well this shrub should perform nicely. The third major witch hazel is a hybrid between Chinese and Japanese species, and it has more ornamental value than the U.S. species with a more intense bloom display. During the summer witch hazels don't stand out, although they do have an interesting scalloped leaf shape common to their family. In the fall the foliage turns many shades of orange and red for a beautiful display much like their smaller cousin dwarf fothergilla, one of our previous featured plants.

Image source: commons.wikimedia.org, by Si Griffiths

Image source: commons.wikimedia.org,
by Si Griffiths

Common Name: Vernal Witch Hazel and Hybrid Witch Hazel

Scientific Name: Hamamelis vernalis and Hamamelis x intermedia

Notable Varieties: 'Arnold Promise' (yellow blooms), 'Lombart's Weeping' (unusual weeping form), 'Diane' (excellent red flowering variety)

Light: full sun to part shade

Size: 6-10' tall, 8-15' wide for H. vernalis; varies by cultivar for H. x intermedia

Soil: prefers moist, acidic soil, but will tolerate other conditions as long as it has good drainage and is protected from drought

Blooms: small red, orange, or yellow flowers with strap-like petals appear in January-March (timing depends on variety)

Other Notes: some varieties have a strong, pleasant flower fragrance; all witch hazels can sucker aggressively from the base, so it is important to prune off the suckers to keep the shrub from getting out of control

See other plants of the month.

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