December 13, 2012

Exhaustingly Beautiful

I know you have a love - hate relationship with certain plants in your garden. Everyone does. There are always plants we think we adore but actually dislike.

Mine is witch hazel.

Everything about this woodland gem is appealing -- the fragrant winter blooms, the funny flowers, the artistic woodsy look of the vase shaped branches. The fall color, so rich and bright. The crisply pleated clean leaves. No pests, no bugs, no bother, just beauty.
Witch hazel has attractive pleated leaves.
Did I mention the fragrance and winter blooms? I love this plant.

Except that I don't.

I am having a hard time even tolerating the witch hazels in my garden.

There are four types of Hamamelis and I have several:
  • The native Hamamelis virginiana, which blooms in fall, is planted in the meadow behind my house.
  • The spring, or Ozark, H. vernalis that blooms in late winter is in my garden by the driveway.
  • The Chinese witch hazel, H. mollis, is on my list and I'll probably buy one this spring.
  • There is also a Japanese witch hazel, H. japonica, and when crossed with the Chinese hamamelis, several hybrid named cultivars were developed. I have H. x intermedia 'Diane' in the garden by the driveway.

Hybrid 'Diane' has tiny brick red blooms.
Really tiny. The few that bloom on my plant look stunted.
None of the plant descriptions mention that witch hazels are slow starters, but all of mine have sorely tested my patience, growing poorly and blooming very tentatively or not at all for the first seven years here. That has caused me to move them, replanting 'Diane' in three different locations so far. Which has set it back even further, I know.

None of the plant descriptions mention they are brittle, but mine fall apart in storms. They disintegrate, and actually split apart in order to lie down in the snow.
Poor 'Diane'

All of the plant descriptions and all of the witch hazels I have seen in other gardens bloom profusely and smell divine. Mine don't. They don't bloom much at all, and I have gone out on a winter day and sniffed and sniffed the tiny isolated flowers until my nose runs, without catching any scent at all.
A blooming Chinese witch hazel at the nursery.
I know it is more mature than mine, but how many years does it take?

My hybrid witch hazel 'Diane' in full bloom in late winter.
Embiggen this photo and you'll see those are mostly dead leaves, not flowers.
This plant has been growing in my garden for seven years now.

H. x intermedia 'Diane' blooming in March at the nursery.
Unlike mine, the flowers are profuse and colorful.

Witch hazels hold their leaves into winter and it is not attractive. The fall blooming H. virginiana holds onto leaves that hide all the little flowers when they open.
This is Hamamelis virginiana out in the meadow in November.
It is supposed to have tiny flowers behind its fall leaves
but not so's you'd notice.

Frick and Frack in early fall. Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' is on the left and a Hamamelis vernalis is on the right.
Fall color is confused, and later in winter it gets worse.
See? It's December and the same two witch hazels have managed to turn a hot mess into a brown wreck.
And this goes on all winter. Snow cover does not improve the look.

Tell me again why I love these frustratingly unattractive plants.

Why do I grow them? Why am I going to buy more? Such as the Chinese witch hazel called 'Sweet Sunshine' which I know I must have this spring, and maybe another hybrid cultivar, 'Jelena', or a new introduction I saw that was described in the nursery catalog as "exhaustingly beautiful".

Exhaustingly beautiful?

Yep, that sums it up.

41 comments:

  1. Laurrie, you've read many plant descriptions and you hope to have blooming bushes in your garden. That why you're growing the hamamelis. May be the soil isn't good for them, or they need stony ground to grow and bloom.

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    1. Nadezda, I do wonder if my soil conditions are not right. I see so many beautiful hamamelis and mine just don't look good.

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  2. The only witch hazel I grow is 'Arnold Promise'. Considering it's planted in dry crappy conditions in pretty much full shade I've been happy with it. Blooming has been consistent and reasonably heavy. As far as scent, I've never detected any either. It does get some sort of leaf fungus in mid to late summer. Between that and the shade I don't get much in the way of fall color. Come to think of it, if this was a prime spot in my garden I would probably choose a different small tree.

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    1. Sue, it sounds like yours is not as happy as it could be, and yet you are getting consistent and heavy blooms. How I would love to see mine flower!

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  3. I am glad to have this heads up about the Witch Hazel. I planted two of them this fall, Jelena and Diane. I won't get my hopes up too much. Mine are small and shrub-like right now. I can't wait to see what they do next year...

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    1. Lisa, I will be interested to hear if you have such slow starters too. Really, after seven years I expected more growth, some flowering, and better fall color, even if they are still not fully mature. I hope yours are more rewarding!

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  4. I gasped when I got to the plant! Good topic--we all have a plant like this! When I moved into my house in 2006 I would look out the window that fall and see a huge swath of yellow. I wandered over to see what tree could possibly be so pretty and it turns out it's the native witch hazel--2 very mature ones, growing with spicebush mingling around. It's amazing. At my job we have 'Diane' and also, it is amazing -in spring and then in the season with it's tiered branching habit. All I can say is keep trying. I added another native cultivar to my yard-'Mohunk Red' about 3 years ago. It is basically still the same size as it was when I planted it-but the trunk is thicker so I know it will take off, hopefully soon. They are growing naturally in good, forested, leaf mulchy soil at the edge of my yard (between the lawn and where the woods start) and in the woods edges around my area. Some sun, but really mostly shade and I notice close to oak trees and american beech trees. Maybe they like old soil areas? The kind that have been naturally sitting there, being covered with leaves for years and years? I will think about my love/hate plant. I do have this leatherleaf viburnum with its smelly spring flowers, and no fall color at all that I finally decided to rip out this coming spring...

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    1. Diane, you make an interesting point about older leafy soil areas. Witch hazels may want that undisturbed rich forest ground that a new garden doesn't have. I do love all witch hazels, but they are frustrating me so!

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  5. I agree with you about the scent. I have only noticed a scent on an unusually warm, early spring day. I have several H.virginia which have no scent, at least to me. My natives are beautiful, although I would say they do better in full sun than full shade.

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    1. Anonymous, I went to a workshop at Broken Arrow nursery, which specializes in witch hazels, and they passed around branches of several cultivars to smell. Lovely spicy fragrances, each of them. I wish I could get that scent!

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  6. I have two, Jelena and Arnold Promise, and they've done nothing in three years. I assume it's because of my soil, and I think I'll finally move them to a higher, dryer place in the spring (or before winter really sets in). There are a few blossoms, but they just don't grow at all (or so slowly, growth is impreceptible).

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    1. James, I have read that witch hazels do not want wet roots in winter. They are not dry loving plants, but they don't want soggy at all. So your move may be just what they need if they have languished where you have them.

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  7. I have Jelena, Diane and H. verginiana at our cabin in NC but all are small, years from looking like they 'should', and all have been moved at least once. Here in GA I have both Arnold's Promise and Moonlight. They have both flowered well the past couple of years. I've had the Moonlight for 8 or 9 years and it was moved because I'd just about given up on seeing it produce more that a flower or two, but I now love this plant and it does produce a very lovely scent. I think you will be richly rewarded.

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    1. Bill, it's great to hear you are growing several, and you encourage me by saying your Moonlight did nothing until 8 or 9 years. Mine are at that critical point -- seven years in my garden now -- so maybe I should be more patient and wait another year or two!

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  8. Congratulations, Laurrie; you're now approaching sacred ground. 'Jelena' ground. I have it. I love it. I prune it like a bonsai. And I haven't even gotten to the fragrance from cut branches that, when brought inside in winter, spice and sweeten indoor spaces like nothing else. Moreover, its fragrance covers half my garden as I do my walkabouts. When you get your own Jelena, and inhale that spicy perfume, you'll go back for more.

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    1. Lee, you are tantalizing me with your tales of Jelena's fragrance! I know I must have it, and other witch hazels I am eyeing too --- how I wish they would grow better for me! Did Jelena take many years to bloom and fill out for you?

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    2. It did take a few years, but I think of that only in retrospect. I was building a new garden on a blank canvas, planting many other new plants – and thus not very aware of its slowness. Know that it's worth the wait. I wonder how it would work in a container. Faster, I suspect.

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  9. Thanks for this post. I have an H. virginiana that I planted maybe two years ago. It was 1' at the time, it's maybe 3' now. I guess I better stay patient for a LONG time or pull the thing out.

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    1. Jason, I'm beginning to think hamamelis is fussy about soil and will grow well in the right conditions, but take forever in other soils. I must have mine in the wrong conditions. I hope yours is faster!

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  10. This was so instructive. Reminds me of my Japanese maple, which is another case of arrested development. I've been feeling sorry that my yard is too wet for witch hazel, but now I don't feel so bad. I suppose if I were 25 years old and never planning to move, I might try it. But I'm not!

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    1. Sarah, arrested development is the right description! My witch hazels grow, but seem stunted compared to other woody plants in my garden.

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  11. Thanks for the heads up. Was planning on planting 'Diane' next year based on catalogs pix. Will now look for other options. I'm only getting older and can't wait for late "bloomers".

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    1. Patrick, I would not avoid planting witch hazels --- they seem to do so well for others in the right spot. For whatever reason, I think I have mine in inhospitable locations. Try Diane anyway!

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  12. Laurrie, I'm so glad to hear your troubles with this plant. I'm not alone! I have just one witch hazel, the native variety and have noticed that despite the fact it is growing quite well and flowering there is NO scent AT ALL. How utterly disappointing. Not sure why that's the case. I've also noticed the tendancy to hold the leaves. Luckily I planted it in an out of the way corner so my irritation is minor at this point.

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    1. Marguerite, even the witch hazels that bloom well and look great have a tendency to hold their leaves, not a great feature. Too bad your native hamamelis has no scent --- but at least it flowers!

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  13. My friend grows them for sale at the tree farm and they really are decent plants. They are particular about having a moist, yet well draining soil or they sulk. The farm has a sandy loam that is why they grow nicely there. But many do have problems with them as you and your commenters noted.

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    1. Donna, Sulky is exactly how mine are behaving. I am realizing now that they are fussy about soil conditions. We always think native plants will just grow naturally, but the reality is I don't have a natural woodland environment for them in my yard.

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  14. Lol, I've never seen anything described as "exhaustingly beautiful". That would put me off.

    I have one witch hazel that I grew from seed. 'Jelena' is the seed parent. Its only flaw is that it does hold onto every last brown withered leaf while it's blooming, which is now. I only noticed that it was blooming because the fragrance carries.

    It's on a little ridge in the lower part of the garden in an area that was heavily amended and seems very happy there.

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    1. Sweetbay, I kid you not, that is a description in the catalog for a new witch hazel hybrid.

      Jelena seems to be the one hamamelis that has distinct and noticeable fragrance. I do hate the way the leaves of all witch hazels hang on though!

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  15. My Moonlight holds on to some of it's leaves although this plant attracts an aphid which forms leaf galls, one per leaf, and these leaves all fall before flowering. When I first noticed the galls a few years ago I was a bit alarmed, but they don't seem to compromise the health of the plant. Arnold's Promise drops it's leaves before flowering and that may be it's greatest attribute.

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    1. That's good to know about the different cultivars and how they hold their leaves. There is a reason why Arnold's Promise is such a popular one!

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  16. I've always been embarrassed to admit I don't love something that gardeners are supposed to love, and Witch Hazel falls into that category. I've never seen one that looked particularly attractive or smelled particularly good, so I've never understood what the fuss was all about. I'm open to having my mind changed though, but until then, I'm unimpressed. There are so many other shrubs out there to try, I've given up on growing Witch Hazel a long time ago.

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    1. Julie, I think I may be getting to your point. I am not sure what the fuss is about, although I'm not quite ready (yet) to give up!

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  17. It's funny how some plants are. They don't like being in certain locations. Even if you make the conditions exactly what that plant is "supposed" to like. Seems like soil conditions and proper sunlight and everything else is just sometimes not enough to make certain plants happy.
    I have absolutely no luck getting Rhodies to grow on my property. Despite the fact that I'm doing everything "right" and they would look just great where I want them, they don't agree.
    Oh Well! Plan B

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    1. Forest Keeper, Rhododendrons are plants I just can't grow either. Too much open sun here, and they don't do well. It may be the same reason my witch hazels don't thrive. I really don't have a woodland setting with old rich leafy mulch duff.

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  18. I have wanted a witch hazel for years...now, I'm not so sure:)

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    1. Rose, I think you should try a witch hazel anyway! Then we can compare notes.

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  19. I'm a tough love gardener, plants have to survive our winters so if they don't measure up - they're OUT! I hope yours show you a little love after all your patience and hard work :)

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    1. Rosemary, you'd think these darn plants would be grateful, wouldn't you? All my attention and care!

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  20. I just planted two witch hazels (virginiana)this fall. You have created a bit of doubt in my mind :) I shall watch then closely for bad behaviour and keep you posted.

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    1. Patty, I hope yours do well --- I think they really are fussy about soil and conditions, but if you have what they need, you'll have beautiful plants!

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