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vwhbl1                                                       Vernal Witch hazel

February 13, 2009.       Always the first plant of the year to bloom in my garden, my Vernal Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis ‘pallida’), also known as Chinese Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘pallida’) gives me hope that winter will soon end and the promise of a new growing season will begin.

According to my garden journal, it has started blooming as early as January 18 and as late as February 25. It usually blooms for about a month. This year, it did something a bit unusual. Some branches began blooming on January 3, 2009 and the main bloom began on February 8th.

The first few days of its bloom period are always the best, as its squiggly-looking yellow petalled flowers unfurl. Depending on the light, the flowers on my specimen almost seem to glow a bright yellow at times. It has to be a trick of the winter sun, my aging eyes, or my imagination. Whatever it is, the effect can be spectacular.

Vernal Witch hazel will bloom without regard to weather conditions, even in the snow. Thivwhsnoblones is probably the main reason we gardeners value them. Not many plants are tough enough to bloom despite the snow year after year. (However, following planting, due to transplant shock, do not be surprised if your Vernal Witch Hazel does not bloom the next winter. Mine took three growing seasons, which included two winters before it bloomed, and now blooms consistently year after year).

I have pictures of my Vernal Witch Hazel in the snow, covered with ice, and during winter thaws. Amazingly enough, during one winter thaw while I was taking photos, a honeybee visited the flowers while I was taking pictures, and here’s one of the pictures, from January 2006. What a honeybee was doing out and about at that time of year when weather conditionwinterhoneybees could change back to below freezing very quickly was puzzling to me. I was so stunned to see a honeybee gathering pollen in the middle of winter, and was transfixed watching, I almost forgot to take photos of it. I still feel fortunate to have witnessed this event by being there to witness it and have pictures to document it.

The particular cultivar of Vernal Witch hazel that I have, ‘pallida’ has sulfur yellow flowers with a maroon center. There are other cultivars with flower colors of different shades of yellow or copper. Most references indicate that ‘pallida’ has a spicy fragrance. Either mine has no fragrance or I loose my sense of smell in the garden in winter, but I never have detected any scent at all to my ‘pallida.’ On the average, the bloom period for Chinese Witch vwhsnoiceblhazels are from January through March. During the growing season, its leaves are described as “softly hairy” and medium green. I would describe the texture to be more somewhat coarse than softly hairy, but perhaps it depends on the sense of touch of the gardener’s or botanist’s hands describing the leaf specimens. The fall leaf color is generally described as bright yellow. In my experience, it is just plain yellow, not as bright yellow as our native Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that blooms in the fall. (You will just have to wait until October to read about that one!) The size of the ‘pallida’ Vernal Witch hazel can range from about 10′ to 15′ making it an ideal shrub for smaller gardens. It has a vase-shape, grows in full sun and well-drained soils. Other cultivars range from 15′ to 30′ in height.

There are also Japanese Vernal Witch hazels and there is a Vernal Witch hazel Hamamelis vernalis native to the U.S. But don’t be too hasty about adding the native Vernal Witch hazel to your garden. It is only native to the South-Central U.S., zones 4-8. Although it is supposed to be a rugged growing shrub, it is doubtful that it could survive northern winters.

• Note: While I do rely on and trust the expertise of references, there is something to be said for gardeners exchanging information on what plants grow successfully in their area or what problems they may encounter. In that same vein, I would like to explain that I am only providing you with my honest comments on my personal growing experience with this shrub because people usually ask me what my results have been like.


Brickell, C. and J.D. Zuk, editors. 1996. The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: DK Publishing, Inc. 1,092 pp.

Brown, L. and J. Bush-Brown. 1996. America’s Garden Book. Macmillan. 1,042 pp.

Dirr, M. 1997. Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Timber Press. 493 pp.

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