What is that plant shimmering with color in a winter garden?
That brilliant yellow is the remarkable witch hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana), a fall and winter bloomer as welcome to the senses as spring itself. This deciduous shrub puts on a show of spider-shaped flowers that bloom before spring leaves come out, often with a pleasing, spicy scent of allspice and honey.
It’s a wonderful addition to a naturalized garden. As a whole, witch hazels are easy to grow and are suitable for varying soil and light conditions. The hardiest is the common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, but all the species will grow in our area in full sun or partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. The shrubs have no serious disease or insect problems, although the native species are prone to leaf gall development.
The Hamamelis, or Witch Hazels, of Green Spring Gardens became an official Plant Collections Network (PCN) collection in 2006. PCN, a part of the American Public Gardens Association, is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta that coordinate preservation of germplasm, the living tissue from which a plant can grow, i.e. seed or a plant part. Member gardens make germplasm available for studies, evaluation, breeding and research.
Green Spring Gardens has more than 215 Hamamelis plants and 110 different types or unique taxa. Two of the largest groupings at the site can be found along the entrance path that parallels Witch Hazel Rd. and in the Spring House Overlook. Dozens of additional specimens are scattered throughout other gardens at Green Spring. Green Spring Gardens' Witch Hazel Collection is one of three PCN collections focused on Hamamelis. The Dawes Arboretum and the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories and Arboretum also have collections.
Green Spring’s collection started with a gift of six witch hazels from the Chapel Square Garden Club in Annandale. There are now selections from all the Hamamelis species, including the native eastern witch hazel, H. virginiana, the Ozark witch hazel, H. vernalis, and hybrids. About 100 of the specimens are cultivars of the well-known Asian hybrid, H. intermedia.
The state of Virginia has a special connection to the witch hazel. An unsung hero of early American botany, the Reverend John Banister, discovered the common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana.
Banister was sent to the British colony of Virginia by Reverend Bishop Henry Compton in 1678. In dispatching Banister to Virginia, Compton, who was a keen plantsman himself, ensured that he would have a steady supply of American plants and seeds for his large, 14.5-hectare garden while also meeting his responsibility to provide the colonists with a minister. Banister was an enthusiastic student of nature and sent to England hundreds of drawings and descriptions as well as seeds. He soon proposed a natural history of Virginia that would catalog the region’s flora and fauna. Banister also corresponded with, and sent drawings to, the famous British naturalists Leonard Plukenet and John Ray, giving them valuable insight into the region’s flora.
Unfortunately, before he could begin his natural history of Virginia, Banister’s career was cut short when he was accidentally and fatally shot while exploring along the Roanoke River in 1692. But this promising young naturalist left his mark through his descriptions and drawings that live on in the botanical works of Ray, Plukenet and Gronovius.
Next time you scan catalogs looking for the perfect plant to add to the garden, think of witch hazels. The open, statuesque shrubs perform beautifully in Northern Virginia.
And well they should. After all, they have their roots here.
The witch hazel has long been used for medicinal purposes. American Indians made leaf tea for colds and sore throats. Twig tea was rubbed on athletes’ legs to keep muscles limber. Astringent bark tea was taken internally for lung ailments and used externally for bruises and sore muscles. Today it is widely used in distilled extracts, washes for eye ailments, and ointments for irritations and toning skin.