The Gardening Life: Witch hazel casts colorful spell in the winter

By Robb Rosser, Columbian Gardening columnist


photoRobb Rosser

Longing for the end of winter in January makes no more sense than wishing for a summer snowfall in July.

After all, winter weather does have some merit.

Because our soil is chilled in winter, daffodils, tulips and crocus will bloom in spring. Without the low temperatures of winter, the lilac would not flower as profusely and its sweet scent would not fill the summer air. Conifers and evergreens stand out when temperatures are cold and other plants are in a state of dormancy.

In midwinter, one of the most striking plants in my garden is the large shrub known as Copper Beauty witch hazel (Hamamelis intermedia "Jelena"). It's also my favorite which is why I refer to it so often. This dramatic shrub comes into bloom in midwinter when the air is chilled. The spindly, metallic orange flower petals emerge from bare branches in such profusion that it seems fall color has returned to the garden. On a dry day in winter, this plant will entice any bees that have been stirred by the sun from their winter lethargy.

Along with its striking flowers, this 6- to 10-foot-tall deciduous shrub sports an attractive vase shape. At its base, the plant is about 2 1/2 feet wide. Branches grow up and out, spreading as much as 15 feet wide at the top. In the foreground, at its feet, I planted the golden-yellow threadleaf cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera "Filifera Aurea"). The color deepens as temperatures drop. As wonderful as each plant is, it's the striking combination of the two that brings the winter garden to life.

"Arnold's Promise" is a popular witch hazel with bright yellow, scented flower petals. Another favorite variety is "Diane." The dark red flowers age to a rusted, iron orange. As good as it looks in winter, this witch hazel's show begins in late fall as the heavily textured, round leaves fade from olive green to purple-red.

The common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, can reach 25 feet with an open, spreading habit. The bark of this plant is the source of the liniment, Witch Hazel.

Seeing red

There are quite a few shrubs and small trees that will produce red fruit that persists through the winter months. That's why I have been collecting cotoneaster since I began to garden. Along with winter berries, most cotoneaster are reliable, weed-smothering groundcovers. The holly family could fill a landscape with winter berries in red, yellow and orange as well as an array of foliage shapes and colors. Even the deciduous holly (Ilex verticillata), with winter branches as bare as weathered bones, hosts a profusion of bright red berries.

When you add holly to your garden, remember that they need a male variety for each group of female plants to produce their berries. Both male and female plants will flower but the trick is to find male and female hollies that flower at the same time for proper cross-pollination. In horticulture, hollies are referred to as dioecious trees or shrubs, which simply means they have male or female organs in separate and distinct plants. If plant tags are not marked, ask nursery personnel to confirm that the plants you buy are compatible varieties.

Other berry-producing plants include an assortment of viburnums, including the Highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and the deep, purple-black berries of David's viburnum (Viburnum davidii). Aucuba, even those planted in shade, have decorative oblong berries. Many trees, including the European mountain ash and crabapple, carry berries over from summer and all the way through winter, drawing an assortment of birds to the garden.

Use imagination

Even if you're not out planting in the garden at this time of year, now is the time to notice and make note of the plants you want for next year's winter garden. If you see a plant blooming in spring, you can buy it on the spur of the moment and plant it in the garden. If you're hoping to create a garden with a showy, fall foliage display, the best time to choose trees and shrubs for their color and plant them in your garden is in the midst of autumn.

On the other hand, choose plants for their winter interest now and plant them in spring or fall. Write the plant's name down so you can remember exactly what you want when planting season comes around. Planting theory states that we can actually plant or transplant as long as the ground is not frozen, but planting in the coldest months of the year can put undue stress on some plants as they struggle to survive the elements. Look into your winter garden and imagine the possibilities.