Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bonsai Plant Profile; Witch Hazel

Hamamelis; Witch Hazel

I wish I knew who to attribute this to/where it came from. All I know is that the folks selling Witch Hazel seeds online seem to love this particular image. Not that I can really blame them.

Winter flowering bonsai are frequently overlooked in comparison to their more multi season friends; pines, maples, junipers.... and for good reason. Many shrubs and trees that flower in winter or very early spring make challenging bonsai specimens. Witch Hazel (of which several varieties are currently in bloom here on Long Island) for instance has large leaves that do not reduce well, and which grow at awkward appearing angles from the branches, making them mostly single season interest trees. Take the tree below, from the Chicago Bontanic Garden collection. Hamamelis japonica, Japanese Witch Hazel, in summer leaf.

Untidy, isn't it?

But take a look at the same tree in its winter dress.

Whole different ball of wax.

Some tips on growing Witch Hazel:

-There are dozens of species of Witch Hazel, many of which have different bloom times, usually lasting for about a month, ranging from October to February in northern areas. Hardiness ranges from zone 8 to zone 3, so be certain that the species you are choosing is appropriate for your winters. A cold frame or hoop house style green house can mitigate those requirements.

-Related to the above, several species have different coloured flowering varieties available. They come in whites, pinks, oranges, reds and bronzes. Many are not as vigorous as the typical yellow flowering varieties, and may prove more susceptible to disease, or may not be as cold hardy as the species. Keep this in mind when experimenting with different cultivars.

-Because you will be showing this tree when it is naked, the ramification and fine branch structure is incredibly important. Witch Hazels can have lovely, fine and delicate branching with some work, and are well worth the effort.

- Well cared for and fertilized, many species of Witch Hazel can take a lot of insult and heavy pruning. Limit the majority of your pruning to early spring to early summer, to allow the tree to rest and form buds for the following winter if you expect to show it.

-Witch Hazels like full sun to partial shade, and when grown in the landscape can tolerate quite a bit of shade. In a bonsai pot especially, offer protection during the summer from midday sun, and their leaves can scorch.

-In the summer, Witch Hazels tend to like a lot of water, and while good drainage is required, these trees should be allowed to remain moist and never allowed to dry out.

-Witch Hazels are largely pest resistant, though occasional scale and aphids will be a problem, especially if over fertilized in mid to late spring. They are also a loved food of certain caterpillars, but this is less of a problem in bonsai cultivation than it is in the landscape. H. mollis, Chinese Witch Hazel is sometimes noted with Powdery Mildew.

-Fertilizing is fairly standard for an average deciduous tree. An occasional dose of an acidic fertilizer can be beneficial, as they prefer slightly acidic conditions.

Having bonsai that look good year round is a great thing, so great as to be impossible to overrate really. But the joy of a winter flowering bonsai cannot simply be ignored by those of us who live in temperate climates. When this quiet time of year rolls around, the winter and early spring flowering choices, both on the bench and in the landscape, keep my heart warm during the quiet months. I look forward to each new flowering as they come. The fall flowering camellias and seven sons tree. Winter hazels, sweet box, mahonia, persian ironwood and erica. Before we even get to plum and cherry, the wintersweet, winter jasmine and forsythia brighten our days. Some of these are suitable for bonsai; others are very much not (I imagine trying to bonsai a mahonia would be a lesson in abject pain and disappointment for any practitioner. But then, there *are* people who bonsai poison ivy, so to each their own). And each winter flowering species has its challenges and disadvantages. But these are trees that personally at least, I would like to try to work with more frequently.