Witch Hazel Wonders: Easy-going and lovely, this is a shrub to love in winter

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If by early January the hounds of winter have you in their sights (the all-too-descriptive refrain from a Sting tune on the album "Mercury Falling"), I know just the antidote: Get thee to a nursery and bring home a witch hazel, which will brighten and perfume your garden for nearly a month during the deadest time of the year. If you don't have the space or inclination to plant a big new shrub, visit the Washington Park Arboretum's winter garden and revel in a riot of witch hazel bloom through February. You'll see all the possibilities of pale to sulphur yellow, gold, copper and maroon flowers, and with diligent sniffing determine which of the many kinds most delights your own sense of smell.

It was a twig of witch hazel that led to my irrevocable enchantment with plants. A fellow librarian at Bellevue Public Library brought in a little branch of witch hazel one January morning and stuck it in a jar on the reference desk where I was working. If my nose hadn't told me so, I wouldn't have believed this crinkled, spidery yellow blossom was real, could really have been cut from the garden on such a cold morning. All day I enjoyed its heavenly astringent scent, and felt the energy exuding from its little explosions of shredded, twisted petals. And when she told me it was called Hamamelis mollis and came from China, I was captured by the mystery of a botanical name, and a new gardener was born.

I couldn't be content with geraniums and impatiens any longer. I'm not sure if I should thank or curse that librarian, now that I think about it. But by that time the damage was done, and I spent a good part of the day in the stacks reading about all the wonders of witch hazel. I've never been without a witch hazel or two in any garden since, planted close to a walkway and right outside a window for winter sniffing and viewing.

In addition to providing exceptional beauty at the time of year we need it most, witch hazels are remarkably care-free plants. Rock hardy, they thrive in sun or partial shade and aren't bothered by pests or diseases. They can be encouraged into a small tree shape, espaliered against a wall or allowed to grow into a vase-shaped, multi-stemmed shrub. In the summer, be sure to provide supplemental water and cut away any suckers as soon as they raise their messy heads.

Planted beneath deciduous trees, witch hazels form a colorful understory in a large garden. In a smaller garden they work as the top layer, underplanted with a skirting of winter hazel and hellebores this time of year, followed by bulbs and smaller perennials. And it never hurts to tuck in a couple of small blue or red-toned ornamental grasses to play off the witch hazel's hotly toned autumn foliage.

The tree and shrub committee of the Great Plant Picks organization recently evaluated a variety of witch hazels at Gossler Farms Nursery in Springfield, Ore. This group works to determine the best plants for our climate, and you can find the complete report on the trials at their Web site, www.greatplantpicks.org. These are the witch hazels the experts called out as the best for Northwest gardens:

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida.' This is my favorite of the yellows, for its cheerful flowers and strong perfume. Best of all it is one of the earliest to bloom, usually not long after Christmas.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane.' Deep maroon flowers can be dramatic if planted against an evergreen backdrop or espaliered against a wall so that the flower color shows up in the landscape. Good fall color.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena.' This fragrant hybrid has large, golden flowers tinged with coppery-orange, and has vivid autumn coloration in shades of orange and red.

Hamamelis mollis. This can be difficult to find in nurseries, but the Chinese species that I fell in love with more than two decades ago is still one of the very best, with intensely sweet perfume and large flowers in bright canary yellow.

Now In Bloom

The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) earns its common name by being one of the first hellebores to open its flowers despite the worst of winter weather. Nearly severe in its perfect simplicity, H. niger's saucer-shaped, snow-white flowers glow on a dark day, set off by purple stems and toothed leaves. Given deep, rich soil and a sheltered spot, this clumping perennial will reward the gardener with long-lasting flowers and handsome year-round foliage.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com.