Witch hazel has soothed many a bump and bruise and has been a household medicine cabinet favourite for generations. This one-time cure all was first fashioned by native north americans from a stew of the leaves and bark of their local species, ‘Hamamelis virginiana’. The distillate made from that same sort of soup today is what goes into the medicine bottles and makes for one of the best, scientifically proven herbal remedies on the market.
Those plants which looked so much like our own British Hazels never made it into our gardens in a big way. Although winter flowerers, the blooms were too small and few and far between to create much of a following. Then came along the discovery and introduction of the Asiatic species just over a century ago and everything changed. Although still not all that common, when you see one you will want one as nothing beats them through late winter into early spring...
‘Hamamelis mollis’ is the parent of most of the Witch Hazels varieties you will find, though generally the many named forms only differ slightly in flower colour from lemon yellows through to oranges and red. All make large shrubs in time with an interestingly crooked branching habit. They have superb autumn colour, often in shades of deep reds and purples. It is for their flowers that they are chiefly celebrated however, and the fact that these will begin to appear when there is little else around to lighten the dark days of winter.
Throughout January, February and into March the bare branches are covered in countless small spidery blooms giving the overall impression from a distance of a golden cloud. Like tiny explosions of colour, the long, thin ribbon like petals zig zag out of the dark red calyces. Clusters of crimped strips of lemon zest, these delicate looking flowers may shrivel and shiver under frost and snow, but they take it in their stride and easily bounce back at every thaw.
Honey bees home in on this early nectar source on sunny days and you will too, drawn on by the wonderfully citrusy scent, just like the tangy peel of oranges. The fresh, fragrant golden flowers of Witch Hazels are a tonic at this time of year and the best cure I know for the winter blues.