she who keeps this diary

03 December 2004 - 12:43 PM

Hamamelis Dilemma

One of the coping mechanisms I use for getting through the winter is arguing with myself over what to plant in the spring. Today's topic: witch hazels.

The situation: I have a fair-sized bed to one side of my front door. Obviously it's in a position of some prominence; everyone who enters my house is going to see it. The bed is square, approximately six feet to a side, and shaded, especially in the summer when the oaks have leafed out. The only things growing there right now are lilies of the valley which previous owners planted and some Liriope I got from a neighbour.

I like the lilies of the valley and I like the Liriope. But the bed needs help. More to the point, it needs height. Neither the lilies of the valley nor the Liriope are any taller than my ankles. It is time to think of shrubs or even small trees.

Given the environmental factors in play, an understory plant would be the best choice -- something that's adapted to soils with a lot of leaf mould, can handle shade, and won't get too big. I'm sort of partial to witch hazels, as they fit those requirements, have attractive habits, pretty autumn foliage and flowers at seasons when little else blooms. So what's to argue about?

The dilemma: should I choose a Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) or the native American witch hazel (H. virginiana)?1

The responsible thing to do would be choose the native. And the native has much to recommend it: it will be adapted for the kind of site I have available; it will open its fragrant yellow flowers in November; it will be as hardy as anything. It is also the source plant for the witch hazel extract you can buy at your local pharmacy.

The Chinese species, on the other hand, is an exotic. Not an invasive one, so far as my research has determined, but an exotic nevertheless. It is not as hardy as the American species, though most accounts say it's hardy for zones 5-8, which would make it securely hardy here (I am in 7b). It may not be as well adapted to local conditions as the native. But the Chinese species has some attributes that make it very appealing. It usually blooms February-March, the time of year when I need flowers most, and the blossoms are widely said to be more fragrant than those of the American witch hazel. Furthermore, the Chinese witch hazel is a bit smaller than the American at maturity, and that too is a consideration.

Choices, choices. The Viking's opinion will be no help. It's not that he's unappreciative of my efforts at making things look nicer, but he dismisses any plants without obvious culinary or medicinal applications as 'useless.' This might incline him to the American species, but since making a distilled witch hazel extract is a bit beyond our capabilities at the moment, he's unlikely even to care very much about that.

1 There is another native witch hazel species, the Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) but it is native to the south central U.S. -- e.g., Arkansas and Missouri -- not to the southeastern U.S. as H. virginiana is, so I am leaving it out of my dilemma. There are also a number of hybrid witch hazels in cultivation, mostly crosses of H. mollis and H. japonica. The hybrids have showier flowers but are said to have less fragrance. Those are being left aside for the moment as well. I am mentally preparing myself for the possibility that the only witch hazels I will find available locally are the hybrids, but I'll deal with that bridge when I get to it.

verso - recto

The WeatherPixie

Current Reading Past Readings Bookplate Bindery Signatures of Other Readers