The witch hazel family

Article originally published by: Kiwi Gardener

Dylan Norfield highlights a group of shrubs whose floral display is a sign the worst of winter is behind us.

Parrotia persica was originally classed under Hamamelis, but botanists decided to place it in its own genus. Native to small pockets of Iran, there is just the one species of Parrotia (often called Persian ironwood). Autumn colours are often dramatic yellows through to reds. Unlike their Hamamelis relatives, they have no petals but are covered in prominent red stamens that hang down from leafless branches. The species can reach 30m tall and half as wide, but several cultivars have been selected for narrower growth or even pendulous branches.

Winter is a time of few flowers and little showiness in the garden, and every flower that does appear is a glimmer of hope that spring is on its way. Just after the shortest day, one family of trees and shrubs starts to bloom. It is the witch hazel family or Hamamelidaceae. Their flowering is a sign that winter is on the turn, and even though their blooms are not your typical, large-petal extravaganzas, they are nonetheless showy. The flowers of many in the family possess very narrow ‘strapshaped’ petals or prominent stamens that stick out and give a very fine and fluffy look to the flowers. When they cover a whole tree or shrub, the result is quite dramatic.

The family consists of several different genera of plants, but only a few are well known and available in nurseries. The most commonly available are the deciduous Hamamelis, which have been bred and selected over the years to produce flower colours from shades of yellow and orange through to reds. Most species will form small to large shrubs, but some will eventually grow into small trees that can be up to 10m high.

Care and propagation

  • Almost all in the family come from damp, woodland situations in partial shade, and prefer a moist, organic, humus-rich soil. This is the ideal situation for maximum growth, but many species can tolerate heavier soils and drier conditions.
  • The smaller species are well suited to growing in pots. Use freedraining compost and keep wellwatered in summer.
  • Propagation is carried out for the species through seed. Seed can be collected in the autumn and sown immediately. Leave sown seed pots outside for the winter as seed needs cold treatment (stratification) to germinate. Most species will germinate in spring. Cultivars are often grafted to maintain the characteristics of the parent plant as seedlings can vary.
  • Plants can be pruned, if necessary, to maintain a smaller and neater shape. Pruning should be carried out in early winter for deciduous species and late summer for evergreen species.
Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel.
Fothergilla major, or the witch alder.

Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel, has a range of yellow flower colours, often with an orange contrasting base. It looks stunning on a winter’s day when covered in frost or with the low sun catching the flowers.

This is one of the parents, along with Hamamelis japonica, of many of the selected cultivars that produce the wide range of plants available under the name Hamamelis x intermedia.

All species are also known for their beautiful autumn colours of reds and yellows.

Fothergilla major, or the witch alder, is a small shrub coming from the south-eastern United States. It is similar to Parrotia in that it has no petals, but has even more dramatic bunches of long white stamens.

These large, fluffy white flowers are often prolific in spring before the foliage emerges. Witch alder is also grown for its bright orange and red autumn colours.

Loropetalum chinense.
Sycopsis sinensis.

Loropetalum chinense can be thought of as the evergreen witch hazel. Forming a small shrub up to 3m, the flowers are almost identical to Hamamelis with very thin strapshaped petals produced in the spring.

Coming from China, Japan and East Asia, it is not as hardy as some of the other genus, but has the benefit of leaf shades of green through to red, as well as white through to red flowers.

Sycopsis sinensis is a Chinese evergreen genus often referred to as the fig hazel. The flowers are clusters of red and yellow stamens and anthers, not as showy as some species but still attractive. It forms an upright tree growing up to 5m tall, and has dark green leaves all year.