Wednesday 21 March 2018

Beautiful witch hazel adds a touch of magic

THE scent of witch hazel is entrancing. Light and sweet, it carries for a considerable distance from the tree, especially on a warm day and often gives away the presence of a tree before it is seen.

And each time it is seen, the beauty of this plant offers a surprise -- it is always better than expected.

The flower clusters, carried on bare branches, have spidery, narrow petals that are an adaptation to flowering in the cold months of late winter and early spring when larger petals would not fare so well.

With twists and curls, the petals have a jaunty aspect that provides a great lift to the early spring scene.

The branches are hazel-like, though the two species are not related. Witch hazel must have seemed magical to the European settlers of North America and they gave it a name to reflect their wonder. Some very good species are from China also. Flowering lasts for three to four weeks, mostly in January and February.

Witch hazel is a small tree, capable of growing to about four metres tall and wide in a good spot, and it will need adequate space to allow it to spread its branches, so that it does not look cramped.

Although witch hazel needs space, other plants can be grown under it and it can be a very elegant addition to a small garden.

There are lots of named varieties of witch hazel, or hamamelis, available, mostly in shades of yellow but with some orange and rich red forms too. The most common and popular variety is 'Pallida', which has pale yellow flowers. 'Arnold Promise' is a smallish grower but carries a plentiful crop of yellow flowers. 'Diane' has deep red flowers and 'Jelena' is coppery orange.

The plants start to flower when quite young and it is possible to choose a favourite to buy when in flower at this time of year.

In autumn, the leaves change colour to beautiful shades of rich pure yellow, or yellow with a crimson flush for the dark-flowered kinds. The tree is as spectacular in autumn as in spring and it deserves to be placed in a prominent position near the edge of a border, reaching out over a lawn or paved area.

Witch hazel is easy to grow in well-drained, neutral or acidic soil. If the soil is limy, it could be prepared by digging in good quantities of garden compost and adding a dressing of sulphate of iron at 100 grams per square metre to reduce acidity and supply iron. Mulch with rotted leaf-mould each spring or every second year.

Sunday Independent

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