Witch hazels

The first beacons of spring.

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Ozark witch Hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, at the Polly Hill Arboretum. —Susan Safford

Quite different from the very ancient Imbolc or St. Brigid’s Day, which signified when water would again run unfrozen in streams and brooks, is what we call Groundhog Day. If the groundhog sees its shadow, we shall have six more weeks of winter.

The January interregnum, the thaw and warm period that marks the temporary suspension of winter’s rule, should soon give way to the typical cycles of February coastal storms and drier, clear, Arctic air we associate with the month. “As the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens” is what used to happen in our northeastern part of the U.S., and I hope still does.

Snow cover is beneficial in ways that have a direct impact on our gardens. It acts as an insulating layer that softens the extremes of the infamous freeze/thaw cycles. Some say it equals an entire hardiness zone in this respect.

Snow is also called the poor farmer’s fertilizer for the traces of elements (nitrogen mainly) it picks up in its journey through the atmosphere, which are then released into soils slowly.

Cold itself offers disease suppression and pest control. Although data may not support this, it is generally thought that cold winters result in fewer ticks, mosquitoes, fungal problems, and other pests.

However, ice and snow require attention to driveways, walkways, and steps. Use of chloride products introduces contaminants that impair soils and disfigure ornamentals or kill them outright. Try to employ alternatives. Straw and hay, sawdust, sand, and ashes all work well enough to provide good footing. One does not need much, actually.

The explosion of burlap wrapping of broadleaf evergreens is suitable for seasonal gardens, but isn’t it a contradiction for those gardens whose owners live here? After all, what is the purpose of an evergreen-rich garden in deepest winter if its green is not to be enjoyed, or offer shelter to the birdlife we wish to support?

These plants can in many cases be wrapped in unobtrusive green-coated wire or pliable black plastic fencing, strongly secured with earth staples or sections of rebar. The plants can breathe and are visible, but are deer-proofed and supported against the weight of snow and ice loads. (Flat-topped hedges and topiary are more prone to snow damage. Prune to thicken and eliminate long, flexible canes, and to promote stockiness and thick growth.)

The wrapping of genuinely nonhardy plants is different, and serves to protect them from windburn, sunscald, salt damage, and breaking dormancy too soon.

Winter interest

Garden writing can get a little thin at this time of year, but it should not. There is plenty happening. Hens are laying more; bulb tips are showing; and Islanders report the first snowdrops. Large flocks of robins are stripping hollies of their berries. Chickadees make a flurry of bathing in birdbaths while simultaneously keeping a sharp lookout for danger, heads furiously switching left and right.

It is almost de rigueur to mention flowering witch hazels (Hamamelis species and cultivars) now, since they are beginning their season. The vase-shaped to spreading small trees and shrubs of this family gladden the hearts of gardeners scouting around for beacons of spring.

I swung by Polly Hill Arboretum to take a look at the Hamamelis collection there. The ‘Pallida,’ ‘Aurora,’ and H. mollis have opened their spidery flowers circumspectly, while the North American native species, H. vernalis (Ozark witch hazel), is in full fragrant flower. A large specimen may be found to the north of the Littlefield maintenance building in the ARB-W section.

With purplish-maroon flowers that are less conspicuous than the flashier hybrids, H. vernalis is often overlooked by gardeners when focusing on acquiring Hamamelis. But — oh — the scent! All this to say it is a shame, because H. vernalis is hardy here, early-blooming, trouble-free, and not grafted, as are the typical hybrids. (Grafting often leads to annoying rootstock suckering around the bases of the trunks, which must be prevented if the scion plant is not to be overwhelmed.) PHA also possesses an uncommon yellow-flowered form, H. vernalis ‘Sandra.’

When I noticed that my H. x intermedia ‘Jelenas’ were more fully open than the arboretum’s, I batted down a certain creeping smugness, remembering the parental dictum: “All comparisons stink.” The PHA plant, I also noticed, had had its branch tips pruned back substantially. The pruning’s objective was possibly to offset the plant’s habit of setting flower buds more thickly back from the branch tips, leaving about 18 inches bare of flowers.

The reddish to coppery-colored hybrid witch hazels tend to have slight to no fragrance. ‘Jelena’ blooms early, with reddish-orange blossoms with little scent (or emitted only sporadically) and with superb fall color. It is a wonderful plant, and the pick of many experts if you have room for “just one.” My other witch hazel hybrid, a highly rated 1969 introduction, ‘Primavera,’ is a mere baby but is opening its yellow curlicues now.

Along with viburnums, nearly all members of the Hamamelis and related families of shrubs and small trees (such as parrotia; disanthus, fothergilla, and corylopsis) make superb additions to Island gardens, shrub borders, and landscapes. Site them in sun to partial shade along woodland edges. Inquire about them at your favorite nursery.

Speaking of pruning

Pruning time is here, not only for ornamentals but also for grapevines and cane fruits. Examine edge tools and prepare to prune orchard trees. On some of these — so far — mild days it is even possible to apply horticultural oil sprays, which require temperatures above 40°. These sprays suppress insect egg masses and larval bodies by suffocation.

Soil carbon

Sometimes I think it is our major duty as earthlings to return all carbon to the soil.