Witch hazels – firecrackers with fragrance

As our sense of smell is linked directly by the brain to our emotions and the garden is a great source seductive pleasures that re-alight a flood of memories.

To concoct a memorable garden of delightful smells, it’s important to take care when combining plants. Throughout the miserable and gloomy winter months you can successfully embroider the air around a bench with ‘happy’ plants such as Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis); winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima); daphne (Daphne odorata); winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox); Viburnum bodnantense Dawn and the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima.

Witch hazel makes an imposing feature in amongst snowdrops, Lenten roses and aconites 

Witch hazels, both the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis japonica along with the superb x intermedia hybrids are among the most exciting shrubs for the winter garden, not only for their shapely outline, which is a spreading vase-shaped habit with zigzag crooked branches but also because their spicy-sweet, scented blooms unravel during the first few weeks of the New Year, if not before, and continue until about mid March. The less commonly grown American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginian produces citrus-scented blooms from October through December.

Few other shrubs greet the cold and frost so defiantly and successfully as these fragrant plants, which tolerate temperatures down to -15C provided they are sheltered from cold winds

Some witch hazels are more fragrant than others and the strongest and sweetest scents belong to Hamamelis x intermedia Pallida, which has sulphur-yellow flowers that can be described as smelling strongly of freesias.

If you’ve only got room for one winter flowering shrub, then make it Pallida and you’ll find no better excuse for venturing out into the garden on a cold January morning. You’ll find that the tiered branches of this award-winning variety contrast especially well with the vertical stems of red-twig dogwood.

The golden varieties Boskoop and Jermyns gold also have a strong spicy scent

Other noteworthy varieties are Diane, Ruby Glow and Rubin, which have blooms that are startlingly red. And the coppery-orange flowers of Jelena, which cling to the bare twigs throughout January and February can be made all the more special by under-planting the shrub with a carpet of snowdrops or a carpet of blue scillas to contract with the orangey flowers, Aphrodite also has ginger-orange-coloured blooms.

Most attractive is Hamamelis x intermedia Aurora that has large straw-yellow and light red flowers with red calyces, which wrap around and protect the buds

Witch hazel plants are happiest in acid soil, enriched with plenty of well-rotted garden compost or manure. They will thrive in dappled shade where in time they will reach a respectable size around 3x3m and make good companions for camellias, mahonia and Oriental hybrid hellebores. A word of caution though, as they are shallow rooting so you must be careful, not to plant anything too close to the main trunk.

Alternatively, you can make witch hazel the centrepiece of your patio displays by growing a well-shaped plant, chosen for its display of strong zigzag branches, in a pot or ericaceous potting compost. John Innes compost is ideal although they will tolerate a multi-purpose but at the slightest sign of leaf droop in summer you need to reach for the watering can. For maximum pleasure, stand the pot of any of the golden-flowered varieties against a dark backdrop so the spidery blooms shine above all else.

Even when the flowers have finished there are the soft matt green leaves that have wavy margins and deep veins to enjoy, during spring and later when they give way to their shroud of dark green summer leaves that turn to a firework display of vivid shades before falling in autumn. You’ll find that the leaves of yellow-flowered varieties turn a rich shade of butter-yellow, whilst orange and red varieties like Jelena and Diane turn vibrant shades of red and orange.

For a small garden look for Hamamelis Arnold Promise, which has large yellow flowers. It will tolerate deep humus rich soils over chalk and can be grown in a large container surrounded with a frill of pansies in a contrasting or matching shade and used to decorate your doorstep during the winter months.

If you can spare some, cut a couple of twigs to perfume rooms indoors in winter. Once they are in bud the branches can be cut and forced into bloom, much the same as you would force the branches of forsythia or quince, or you can choose ones with flowers that have just opened. Make clean cust so there’s no chance of the remaining stems dying back and going rotten. In a cool room they will last around five days in a vase provided the water is changed regularly.


The “witch” in the name originated in Middle English “wiche” from the Old English “wice” meaning pliable and the long flexible stems were once used for water divining.

E A Bowles, the famous early 20th-century gardener, called it the Epiphany tree because that is usually flowering on January 6, with golden bloom that have a the scent of frankincense.

The American Indians first discovered that boiling the bark has therapeutic properties and can be used to accelerate the healing of wounds and to stop bleeding. Herbalists also use witch hazel in the treatment of diarrhoea and inflammation of eyes. And an extract of witch hazel twigs is also commercially combined with alcohol, sometimes known as “hamamelis water”, and used as an astringent. Every home should have a bottle, as it is useful for treating skin disorders, such as insect bites and sunburn, and even ‘cooling down’ varicose veins and haemorrhoids. It’s incredibly soothing and will work quickly to reduce any swelling.

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