As I sit and write, a snowstorm is raging outside my window and I'm thinking how nice it would be to be a bit closer to spring. The sunny yellow blooms of forsythia and the fragrant flowers of lilac are still months away, but thanks to a new addition that I planted in my garden last season, I will have my first flush of flowers in just a matter of weeks. What shrub could possibly bloom in the winter? Why, witchhazel of course!
Nova Scotia is home to a native species of witchhazel, Hamemelis virginiana, which is a large open shrub that flowers in mid to late autumn. The flowers are pretty with clusters of delicate looking yellow ‘threads', but they're sturdier than they look and also offer a sweet fragrance. Combine the late flowers with the enticing scent and the outstanding autumn foliage (turns from bright green to yellow, sometimes with streaks of burgundy or purple) and you have a triple threat! The native species is a good choice for a woodland garden, but it can also make a nice landscape plant. Just give it plenty of room as it can grow more than 20 feet tall.
Chinese witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis) is another species and also has extremely fragrant flowers, and although it is hardy for our region, the flower buds tend to be prone to cold damage and bloom is not guaranteed. Clever plant breeders have crossed the Chinese witchhazel with the Japanese witchhazel, creating a hybrid called Hamamelis x intermedia, a tidy shrub with a pretty vase-shape and a spectacular winter flower show. Several must-have cultivars of H. x intermedia include ‘Arnold Promise', ‘Jelena' and ‘Ruby Glow'.
These hybrid witchhazel cultivars offer many outstanding characteristics including a long blooming period, tidier growth than the native species and a range of flower colours (includes red, orange and gold). Did I also mention that they're very low maintenance garden plants, not typically bothered by insects or diseases? Here are a few of my favourite cultivars:
Arnold Promise - Introduced by the Arnold Arboretum of Boston, Arnold Promise is a star of the March garden. Its spidery yellow blooms are fragrant and a welcome harbinger of spring. The plant will grow about 15 feet tall by 10 feet wide and should be placed where its winter flowers can be enjoyed - near the entrance of the house, by the kitchen window or along a walkway.
Jelena - The stunning flowers of Jelena grow up to an inch long, but it is their colour that is extraordinary - a pleasing combination of red, copper and yellow. The wispy blooms emerge in late February through March and the hardy plants will grow about 12-feet tall at maturity.
Ruby Glow - Breaking away of the typical gold hued flowers of witchhazel, the deep red petals of Ruby Glow add unusual colour to the late winter landscape. Of course, they're also fragrant, so make sure to plant it in a spot where the spicy scent will be appreciated.
Niki Jabbour is the author of The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (2012 Book Award American Horticultural Society) and the host of The Weekend Gardener, which will start back up again on News 95.7 FM in April. Find her on twitter @Niki Jabbour and facebook.