The Casual Gardener: Beautiful witch hazel offers plenty of midwinter magic

In deep mid-winter few things are as bright as the witch hazel...

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) – its very name evokes something out of the ordinary

WITCH hazel… Even the name itself evokes something out of the ordinary and supernatural. It's said that the early European settlers in North America gave it the name after recognising its healing qualities, especially for bruising and skin complaints.

The witch hazel is also employed in the ancient art of water divining or dowsing, where a Y-shaped branch in the right hands can be used to locate water below ground. Then again, perhaps somebody's just got the wrong end of the stick, so to speak, as another theory is that the ‘witch' component may come from the middle English ‘wiche', meaning pliable, nothing whatsoever to do with the dark arts.

But there is undoubtedly something magically alluring about the witch hazel – or Hamamelis – a winter-flowering shrub, whose spicy, citrus scent and spidery flowers on leafless branches in yellow, orange and reds appear incongruous at this time of year.

Traditionally these shrubs were planted in shady woodland, but witch hazel is as versatile as it is beautiful. Put it at the back of a wide border to add height, as well as winter and autumn colour from flowers and foliage. It's great as a specimen plant, or planted in groups. They're fully hardy and tolerate a range of typically encountered garden soils, even over chalk if the soil is deep enough and has plenty of organic matter added – or safer still on alkaline soil is in a large tub of ericaceous compost.

Full sun or partial shade is fine, provided there is some protection from winds, though the former is preferable for maximising flowers. It's important to keep shallow roots cool and mulching around the base of the plant is an easy way to achieve this, but be sure to leave a gap of 2-3 inches around each stem. Apart from this, maintenance is minimal, just a tidy up with a minimal prune in late winter to keep the shape you want.

In small gardens, where growth needs to be checked, it's recommended to prune witch hazel immediately after flowering. Cut back last summer's shoots, leaving only two or three buds. This will keep the plant more compact as well as more floriferous by promoting spur growth.

They'll never grow too big, however, maxing out in a loose fan shape of roughly 10ft x 10ft.

When seeking out preferred varieties, it's best to start with those boasting the Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) Award of Garden Merit (AGM) – the experts' seal of approval for any plant.

Hamamelis mollies ‘Wisley Supreme' for some reason hasn't (yet?) been deemed worthy of a coveted AGM but its yellow January flowers and heady scent mean it's definitely worth investigating.

The hybridization of Hamamelis japonica from Japan and Hamamelis mollis from China has created Hamamelis × intermedia and resulted in some rather unusually coloured cultivars. Check out Hamamelis × intermedia 'Aphrodite' AGM, with vibrant orange sweetly scented flowers from January to March and a buttery yellow autumn colour.

Or the subtly scented Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Diane' AGM, which is said to the best red flowered witch hazel, retaining its blooms through midwinter. As well as its red blooms which contrast fabulously with the bare branches of the plant, also delivers stunning autumn colour as the leaves turn orange and purple.

Hamamelis × intermedia 'Vesna' AGM has hanging deep orange-yellow flowers and strong autumn foliage, while Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Jelena' AGM has beguiling coppery orange but little or no scent.

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