How do plants get their names? Sometimes it’s obvious. The plant takes its name from the discoverer, the first person to bring it to the attention of (western) science. Or its name evolves as a descriptor used by people for whom it had a value or meaning. And sometimes the stories that surround the naming of a plant become overlain with others and the actual origins become misty with time.

So it is with witch hazel (Hamamelis). Some say that witch hazel was named as such by early settlers in North America who recognised healing qualities in the plant. They may also have used it for divining water. Both activities that have in the past been associated with the ‘black arts’. Another view is that ‘witch’ may come from the middle English ‘wiche’, meaning pliable, but who really knows? What matters is that you can achieve a little of your own hocus pocus and trick the eye of the neighbours and the rest of the family into thinking that spring has come, in your garden at least. Flower-filled branches, and wonderful, heady scents will draw footsteps into the garden that would otherwise stay firmly indoors.

Getting back to plant names, it’s easy to see where breeders are coming from when they give new varieties names. Take Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Sunburst’. This variety produces large, pale yellow flowers in mid-late winter, just when they’re most welcome. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ produces flowers in clusters at the same time, as does ‘Vesna’. Generally, yellow flowers are most fragrant in witch hazel, but Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ is unlikely to disappoint on this or any other point. ‘Diane’, as well as producing intense red blooms which contrast fabulously with the bare branches of the plant, also delivers stunning autumn colour as the hazel-like leaves turn orange and purple.

Witch hazel is as versatile as it is beautiful. Put it at the back of a wide border to add height, as well as winter and autumn colour from flowers and foliage. It’s great as a specimen plant, or planted in groups. They’re fully hardy and tolerate a range of typically encountered garden soils. They’re happy over chalk if the soil is deep. Full sun or partial shade is fine, provided there is some protection from winds. Maintenance is minimal, just a tidy up with the pruners in late winter to keep the shape you want.

Material Courtesy of www.the-hta.org