The witchhazel family has a beguiling name and, in my opinion, well-deserved due to their enchanting garden presence. Here are four members that I feel are deserving of wider recognition and use. Low-maintenance and generally trouble-free, these rewarding plants have certainly cast their spell on me with their seasonal interests.
I wish this lovely shrub was more widely planted because it’s a welcome start to spring and is undemanding the rest of the year. Although Winterhazels are related to Witchhazel, the flowers do look quite different; short chains of butter-yellow flowers with a pleasing fragrance appear in early spring, making the shrub look like it’s adorned with thousands of small ornaments. The leaves do resemble Witchhazel: scalloped, matte green and with a nice texture of impressed veins, appearing after the flowers and staying clean and untroubled all summer, turning varying degrees of yellow in fall.
In the garden, they look fantastic in a woodland setting under taller trees and carpeted below with short complementary perennials such as the purple-flowered Creeping Phlox or evergreen groundcover like Pachysandra, Robb’s Spurge or Siberian Carpet. The golden-leaved variety would contrast nicely with soft green ferns, big blue Hostas, or purple- or rosy-leaved Heuchera. You can even try a carpet of short spring-flowering bulbs such as Crocus, Grape Hyacinth, Anemone or Squill – their blue and purple shades complementing the soft yellow flowers above, and they’ll disappear by late spring when the perennials sprout anew.
The namesake of the group, Witchhazel is famous for its spidery flower clusters that open as early as January or February in shades of yellow, orange or red (and, rarely, purplish). It always amazes me that they can flower when it’s so cold out (I can’t imagine any pollinators flying when it’s that cold, but you never know), but the temperatures never seem to bother them. Often fragrant, the flowers will curl up their petals during cold snaps and unfurl them again once the temperatures moderate.
These large shrubs can reach the height of a small tree, and they look wonderful underplanted with perennials or short shrubs. Most varieties are hybrids of Chinese and Japanese species, but there are two native to the U.S. – Vernal (H. vernalis), which blooms in winter/spring and Common (H. virginiana) which blooms in mid- to late fall. The latter is found in Maryland while the former’s range is limited to the south-central U.S., though they do just fine here.
Leaves can display yellow, orange or red fall coloration and the branches form a “V”-shaped silhouette in winter, making them easy to walk around and plant under. Our locally-native Common Witchhazel is a valuable late-season nectar source for pollinators, and is happy situated in woods’-edge conditions where you can underplant it with other native shrubs or perennials.
Witchalder / Fothergilla (Fothergilla)
These are definitely one of my favorite native shrubs. While regionally rather than locally native – they grow wild in the southeast but the historical range doesn’t extend up to our area – they nonetheless perform wonderfully here and are great additions to a mixed border.
My top pick is definitely the blue-leaved form because I love mixing foliage colors and textures to create interest. Imagine planting them with gold-striped Hakone Grass, white-variegated Hostas, purple or rose Heuchera or black Mondo Grass. Fothergilla blooms in mid-spring; compacted bottlebrushes with a light fragrance and ivory color dot the branch tips before the leaves emerge. Foliage stays clean in summer and autumn brings a stellar show of orange, burgundy, maroon, scarlet and gold.
I have watched a bank of Fothergilla planted behind perennials in the woods at Longwood Gardens for years now, and they always look amazing in fall. While tolerant of full sun, these shrubs do well in part shade and, so long as the drainage is good, are not fussy about soil type. They’re slow-growing but can sucker modestly if happy, and usually left alone by deer.
Chinese Fringe-flower (Loropetalum)
Sometimes what’s old is new again – while seemingly new to horticulture, Loropetalum has been known to U.S. horticulture for the past 130-odd years. Varieties with better cold hardiness and rich leaf colors have brought them into the limelight again, and deservedly so. How many other shrubs can give you purple leaf tones in part shade? Or resemble a small Japanese Maple from a distance? Although there has been an explosion of new varieties in recent years, many share similar traits: deep plum-purple or reddish foliage and slightly fragrant, hot pink witchhazel-like flowers in spring, which can sporadically re-appear in summer.
If pink isn’t your thing, there’s even a unique new variety that has reddish-green leaves with white flowers. Growth habits range from short, weepy and almost groundcover-like to taller, rounded shrubs that can rival the size of a mid-size Japanese Maple. Relaxed branch tips tend to give them a cascading look, but they can also be trained against a trellis (espalier) or trained to look like a small tree. Leaves are evergreen when protected from harsh cold and wind; otherwise, expect them to drop foliage, turning brilliant red or orange, and regrow in spring.
Undemanding in care, they prosper in well-drained soil from part shade to full sun; shelter from the extremes of winter to keep them looking their best. This is another one of those foliage-lover’s dream shrubs, begging to be combined with yellow-leaved plants for sharp contrast or blues, whites and grays for more subtle complement. I love them with the aforementioned blue Fothergilla, white-striped Hakone Grass, silver-leaved Artemisia or Bluebeard. For more of a jolt, try combining them with Kaleidoscope Abelia, yellow-leaved Spirea or yellow-green Junipers.