Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Its spicy fragrance and spidery flowers in yellow, orange and reds make it a must for the winter garden.
Witch hazels can thrive in many gardens, given the right conditions and care. You can find the details below.
Site and soil conditions
An open, sunny position is best, as plants become straggly in shade, although they do tolerate partial shade. Avoid exposed and windy positions.
Young witch hazels can be damaged by hard frosts, so avoid frost pockets, or be prepared to protect plants with a couple of layers of horticultural fleece in their first few years if there is a hard winter or late spring frost.
Witch hazels need free-draining soil conditions with an adequate supply of moisture. A light soil with plenty of added organic matter, such as well-rotted manure or compost, is best. They will tolerate heavy or clay soils if they are improved by digging in organic matter and by ensuring good drainage.
Acid to neutral soil pH is preferred (pH 4.5-6.5). Witch hazels may tolerate deep soils over chalk, with plenty of added organic matter. If they become chlorotic (yellow) because of the high pH, then treatment with a chelated (sequestrated) iron fertiliser, ideally one that also contains manganese, can help. They are unlikely to tolerate shallow chalky soils.
Watering, mulching and feeding
Water witch hazel plants during dry periods, particularly if they are young or still establishing. Lack of moisture can be a problem in winter as well as in hot summers, with flowers aborting because of insufficient moisture levels. Conserve water by mulching the root area in late winter or early spring.
Witch hazels need little feeding, but may benefit from a top dressing of general balanced fertiliser, such as Growmore or fish, blood and bone, in late winter or early spring.
Use a John Innes ericaceous or, less effectively, soil-free ericaceous or multipurpose potting compost and pot on gradually as the shrub grows, with the final container being quite large (about 40cm (16in) across and deep). Make sure the compost does not dry out, but ensure the pot has good drainage, with sufficient drainage and standing the pot on pot feet if the drainage holes are flush with the ground.
Pruning and training
Hamamelis 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.
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.
H. × 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, unscented coppery orange flowers appear in early to mid-winter. 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).
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Root diseases such as Phytophthora root rot and honey fungus are the most serious problems of Hamamelis.
Witch hazels can sucker. To minimise this problem, avoid planting too deeply and do not bury the graft union (visible as a bulbous part of the stem near to ground level).
Rabbits and deer may be a problem in rural areas. Vine weevil larvae can be troublesome for witch hazels in containers.
Powdery mildew may occasionally cause leaf symptoms.
Common name Witch hazel
Botanical name Hamamelis
Group Shrub, deciduous
Flowering time Mid-late winter, except for. H. virginiana, which flowers in autumn
Planting time Autumn to winter
Height and spread 4-5m (13-16ft) by 2.5-5m (8-16ft)
Aspect Full sun or partial shade
Hardiness Hardy. Flowers are frost resistant