The Sweet Scent of Springtime: Bewitching Hamamelis Vernalis…

Sweetly Fragrant Hamamelis Vernalis: North American Native Vernal Witch Hazel, Cut from My Garden and Forced Inside

Copper-Orange Tassels of Witch Hazel Glow in the Afternoon Light

March, much like November, is a different month every year in New England. Some seasons, March skies are grey and late winter winds are cold; heavy snow falling long past the vernal equinox. And then there are years when March is soft; weeks of misty skies, melty temperatures and warm sunshine dancing on snow banks as they slowly disappear. This morning, I awoke to yet another ice storm —a quarter inch glaze coating trees and threatening my electrical supply— and a firm reminder that the chilly season of winter yet reigns.

Still —in spite of the relentless cold, freezing rain and mountains of snow— I know that spring is slowly coming. And during this time of transition, my anticipation always reaches a fever-pitch. I stalk the woody plants in my garden, watching for hints of color and swollen buds. And this year —with so much snow on the ground— I am especially grateful for the maturing shrubs and trees in my garden, rising above the frozen terrain…

In warmer years, Hamamelis vernalis —vernal witch hazel— blooms in early to mid-March. In colder years, this harbinger of springtime may be delayed past the equinox

Many of my favorite garden plants have two stellar seasons: spring and fall. And among my favorites, the family of Hamamelidaceae (the witch hazels) ranks very high indeed. Hamamelis vernalis —sometimes called Ozark or spring witch hazel— is native to the south-central regions of the United States and hardy in USDA zones 4-8. This is a tough, colonizing shrub; tolerant of poor, scrappy soil and a wide range of moisture levels. Vernal witch hazel is a great native plant for informal hedging, naturalizing along a woodland boundary or even for something as mundane as stabilizing a steep bank. Although her flowers aren’t nearly as large and showy as those of her more flamboyant Asian and hybrid cousins (read my post on Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ here), the perfume of her early, coppery-orange blossoms is so sweet and delightful that their petite size is easy to overlook. She’s also a glorious sight in autumn, when her softly mounded form turns brilliant gold; shimmering against the blue autumn sky.

When warm temperatures arrive early in Vermont, the bloom of vernal witch hazel sometimes coincides with, or even precedes the spring equinox. But winter seems a bit tenacious this year; unwilling to loose her grip on the sleeping green mountains. Feeling a bit weary, I decided to give myself a spring prelude —as I often do— by forcing the branches of a few early blooming favorites. Late last winter, I pruned my Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ rather heavily; bringing a large armful of branches indoors for forcing. The scent was intoxicating. This year I allowed myself but a few wayward twigs from the delicious bodnant viburnum, and instead harvested a mass of Hamamelis vernalis (read more about how to force branches here)…

Freshly harvested branches of Hamamelis vernalis cut for forcing indoors

Once harvested and prepared, I placed the bundle of witch hazel branches in my cool cellar. Slowly, I am bringing branches upstairs to enjoy their honey-sweet fragrance —strong enough to scent an entire room— and delightful, sculptural form. By month’s end, various species of witch hazel will begin unfolding their blossoms outdoors, in my garden. But for now, I can enjoy a bit of spring here inside my home…

Wonderful warm color, festive form and intoxicating fragrance: who could ask for more than a visit from the good witch on a drab-grey day

Forced witch hazel branches fill my bedroom with the delicious honey-scented fragrance of springtime


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