One of the earliest heralds of spring in your landscape is the Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis mollis. This shrub, as the common name implies, is native to the forests in southeastern China and performs very well in most temperate Canadian gardens. A classic shrub for the very early spring or late winter garden that showcased on the market in 1879. Since then a great many cultivars and hybrids have been developed to provide even more variety for your gardens. The genus Hamamelis comes from the Greek word hama which means “at the same time” and melon which means “apple or fruit”. This name comes about as some Witch Hazels have flowers and fruit simultaneously. The species name mollis means soft, referring to the foliage.
If you are the sort of gardener to rely on the hardiness zone information, zone 5-6 is perhaps the limit for Hamamelis mollis. Many of the cultivars are grafted onto native Witch Hazel rootstock which increases the plant’s vigour but in contrast this union requires moderate attention. Wild or native rootstock of any plant grows at an alarming rate as compared to its partner, the grafted cultivar, therefore root suckers are often prevalent and require continuous monitoring and removal. Neglecting this step often results in the rootstock taking over and “out growing” the desired grafted cultivar.
Planting location is a consideration as this shrub will produce the best blossoms if grown in full sun with consistent moisture levels. The preferred soil conditions are acidic and organically rich, much like one would assume Witch Hazel has in its native environment. Clay soils can be modified with organic matter such as well rotted manure or compost to provide better drainage and acidify. Under ideal conditions the shrub can reach five metres and requires annual pruning (after the flowering period) to keep the plant in shape.
As with many shrubs that produce flowers or have secure flower buds in the coldest part of the year, early temperature rises, and fluctuations can affect blossom. As an example, if the February temperatures rise above freezing for several days and with stronger sun occurring, many buds begin to emerge. Sudden relapses back into frigid temperatures will often destroy the infant blossoms. In marginally hardy regions, it is advised to plant Witch Hazel in a protected spot and consider a burlap cover left in place until more favourable weather occurs. Additionally, fluctuations in soil moisture levels during the active growing season often cause sun scald or burn to the foliage. Insects and disease issues are always prevalent in the garden, however in moist soil conditions the potential for powdery mildew and leaf spot increases.
The delicate and oh so welcomed flowers of Hamamelis mollis provide a tremendous aroma both in the garden and in the home. Many gardeners will collect flowering stems from their woodland gardens to make winter bouquets. Additionally, Witch Hazel provides excellent fall colour for the woodland and/or border gardens.