No winter garden is complete without at least one witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.). These superb shrubs flower reliably during the harshest, bleakest of winters, scenting the air with their uniquely spicy fragrance. I featured this lovely yellow cultivar in a recent post, and remarked how the feathery, crinkled flowers reminded me of lemon zest. They smell equally delicious. The trick with witch hazels is to grow them somewhere that is consistently moist, but not wet. A sunny streamside bank or woodland glade would be perfect, offering moisture, shelter and good light. Should you not possess the right natural conditions, then you are setting yourself up for a lot of watering, as witch hazels do not tolerate drought. That’s a tall order for most of us, and added to that one needs neutral to acid soil and plenty of patience: witch hazels are not speedy growers although, in time, they can achieve the proportions of a small tree.
E. A. Bowles, the 20th-century plantsman and garden writer, referred somewhat romantically to witch hazel as the Epiphany tree. This is the time when it commonly blooms, ‘with flowers of gold and scent of frankincense’. In fact there are varieties of witch hazel that bloom from autumn through to March, so chosen carefully one could enjoy a long succession of flowers in colours from pale yellow, through foxy orange to burnt red. For yellow flowers, two witch hazels I can recommend are Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Pallida’ AGM, one of the best sulphur yellow cultivars, and Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ which has a lovely scent and canary yellow flowers.