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27 Jan 2023

Plant of the month: Hamamelis

Written by Valeria Soddu, PLANTS Inventory Officer
A close-up of a small witch hazel tree, with lime green petals just starting to emerge on its thin branches.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis)
During our inventory work at Crathes Castle, we encountered several specimens of the elegant witch hazel, a genus of fascinating medium to large deciduous shrubs.

Mainly flowering in winter, witch hazels bring much-needed colour and texture to the garden when many other plants are dormant. The ‘witch’ part of their name comes from the old English word wyce, meaning pliant. This is a reference to the shrub’s flexible twigs, which have been historically used in North America as dowsing rods in the search of precious metal or underground water. The ‘hazel’ part is due to its foliage resembling that of hazel trees (Corylus ssp). However, the two genera are not closely related and actually belong to different families (Hamamelidaceae and Betulaceae).

A close-up a branch of a witch hazel tree, with deep red, round leaves.
Witch hazel leaves resemble those of hazel trees. | Image: guentermanaus, Shutterstock

The remarkable spidery flowers of witch hazels come in shades of yellow, orange and red. They appear on bare stems and have a delightful, spicy fragrance. While the flowers may look quite delicate, they are not easily harmed by cold temperatures. Instead, their slender petals roll up for protection from the cold; on warmer days they unfurl, just like a party blower.

A close-up of the tip of a branch of a witch hazel tree. Tiny orange petals, that look just like party blowers, are unfurling. The buds are furry.
Emerging strap-shaped petals

There is far more to this plant than its ornamental value. Hamamelis has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, thanks to its astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. Today, you can find its extract in numerous health products. Another fascinating feature of these shrubs, recently studied in the Chinese species of Hamamelis mollis, is their method of seed dispersal. When ripe, the fruits can fire their seeds up to 18 metres away with the force of a bullet fired from a 19th-century gun! Hamamelis × intermedia, which is very popular in gardens, is a cross between the Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis) and the Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica). This hybrid was created accidentally at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in the early 1900s when a propagator planted the seeds collected from a H. mollis that was near its Japanese relative.

There are several Hamamelis x intermedia cultivars in National Trust for Scotland gardens, including ‘Aphrodite’ with its orange-red, strongly scented flowers, and ‘Rubin’ with its more subtle scent and deep red flowers. You can find both at Crathes Castle (in the viewpoint area above the castle) and Threave Garden (in the Rose Lawn area).

A small witch hazel tree grows in a woodland area. It is early spring, and its yellow-green leaves are only just starting to emerge.
A witch hazel growing at Crathes Castle

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

Read more about the PLANTS project

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