February is definitely the height of winter, and is often filled with howling winds and cold temperatures for the entire month. Still, the daylight hours increase steadily through this short month. By the last day, you may even feel some hope that spring is just around the corner. One plant that can add some color to your landscape and remind you that spring is on its way is witch hazel, a shrub that comes alive with small, yellow blooms in late winter.
Witch hazel is a native shrub or small tree that comes in many shapes and sizes. Some grow with horizontal branches in a spreading fashion, while others are more upright. There are even weeping varieties available. Fragrant flowers are usually yellow but can also come in shades of orange or red, and they bloom in the colder months — either very late fall or late February and early March. For this reason, it’s a great plant to add to your landscape to brighten up a dreary winter day.
Witch Hazel Basics
Growing Zones: 3-8
Bloom Time: Small yellow, orange or red flowers in late winter and golden yellow leaves in autumn
Exposure: Full sun to partial shade
Mature Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide, depending on variety
Notes: Native witch hazel varieties are hardier than their Chinese counterparts. Fragrant flowers are small but colorful, with long, thin petals. Leaves are oblong and change from green in summer to gold or yellow in the fall before dropping. If you’re looking for winter blooms, check the description carefully before you choose a variety to make sure it flowers in February or early spring instead of in the autumn.
Growing Witch Hazel in the Landscape
Witch hazel flowers best in full sun, but it will tolerate some shade, particularly in the afternoon. Be sure to plant it in a spot where it will receive at least four hours of sun each day. It prefers well-drained soil and will tolerate acidic soil but not heavy clay. You may need to prune witch hazel to maintain the desired shape and size.
Planting Witch Hazel
Once you’ve chosen your variety and location, dig a hole that’s twice as big around as the root ball of the plant. Witch hazel doesn’t need much fertilizer, but you may need to amend your soil to improve drainage and break up clay, as its roots don’t like to sit in standing water. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with soil, planting at the same depth as it was in the container. Water deeply and mulch with an inch or two of shredded bark to retain moisture. Witch hazel prefers acidic soil, so you can also add pine needles to your mulch to help with this. It’s important not to allow your plant to dry out for the first month as it gets established, so check the soil daily.
Ongoing Care for Witch Hazel
Once witch hazel has been established, it can tolerate dry spells and needs very little care. These hardy shrubs are rarely bothered by insects, though they could contract fungal diseases in very wet years. Deer will sometimes eat witch hazel as well.
Witch hazel is a slow grower, but you may need to prune it each spring after flowering to maintain its shape. Start by removing dead branches and suckers that grow up from the ground around the main stem (although you may keep these if your goal is to create a full hedge). Once problem branches are removed, you can do some additional clipping to maintain a balanced shape, bearing in mind that witch hazel looks best in a natural form rather than pruned to a geometric shape. Be sure to complete pruning before summer so the plant has time to produce new flower buds for color next February.