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Plant Profiles

Arnold Promise witch hazel

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February's the month when the Winter-blooming witch hazels begin.  Here's one of the most popular, 'Arnold Promise'. 

 

Its tiny flowers are complex and, close up, seem like a primitive aquatic carnivore.  The fuzzy dun-colored calyx has split into four lobes, red and shiny enough to look like moist jowls spread wide open for a meal.  Each lobe is separated from its neighbor by a single streamer-like petal; those of 'Arnold Promise' are forsythiia-yellow.  The petals seem to have prehensile aspirations, unfurling on warm days and refurling on cold ones.  In front of each lobe is a broad stamen, blood-red and saliva-shiny, holding a pair of anthers of pollen like a pair of teeth.

 

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If I were a sixteenth of an inch tall, I might be worried—but, in the picture below, that flesh-colored dirigible is the tip of my thumb.  I can enjoy witch hazel with nothing to fear.

 

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Thank goodness, because the flowers are fragrant as well as peculiar, and it's one of the joys of Winter to bring a spray of them right up to your nose. 

 

 

Here's how to grow this easy cold-weather beauty:

 

Latin Name

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'

Common Name

Arnold Promise Witch Hazel

Family

Hamamelidaceae, the Witch Hazel family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8

Habit

Upright and spreading; often as wide as tall.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Twelve to fifteen feet tall and wide.  Potentially to twenty feet in both directions. 

Texture

Open.  A Hamamelis x intermedia shrub keeps a good spacing between its branches. 

Grown for

its foliage:  Witch hazel foliage is distinctive all season long, with attractive veining and a wider-at-the-bottom pointed-oval shape that is immediately recognizable.  The Fall color is a glorious cadmium-yellow. 

 

its flowers: 'Arnold Promise' is one of the brightest of Winter-flowering shrubs, with forsythia-yellow flowers for many weeks.  I love its show, even though I loathe the show of forsythia itself.   

 

its habit: Unlike Hamamelis vernalis and its cultivars (especially the uniquely pendulous 'Lombart's Weeping'), which can spread into impenetrable colonies, H. x intermedia shrubs are naturally vase-shaped.  They leave plenty of room at their feet for underplantings, and their open branching lets light and at least some sun reach those partners all Summer long.

 

its vigor:  Hamamelis x intermedia is a tough plant, succeeding in almost any soil as long as it's not drought-stressed.  It's recommended, in particular, as a good performer in the Midwest, which is high praise indeed for any plant's hardiness and tolerance of extremes in weather and climate.

Flowering season

The last half of Winter, usually beginning in February and lasting well into March or even early April.  The timing is dependent on the weather and your individual plant.  

Color combinations

Because Hamamelis is a mid-green bush in the warm months, it goes with anything.  The bright yellow Fall foliage stands out amid the more prevalent oranges, reds, and browns of the season.  The bright yellow flowers are equally showy, and much longer lasting.  They can inspire as well as anchor a larger display of yellow-friendly color at a time of year when any color at all is a boon.

Partner plants

Hamamelis x intermedia is appealing but not flashy in warm weather.  It's flashy indeed in Fall foliage, and even more so when in bloom in the dead of Winter.  As with any deciduous shrub, if by a miracle your Hamamelis is backed by evergreens and underplanted with evergreens, well, you're blessed, indeed.  The wide and open habit of 'Arnold Promise' would make the juxtaposition with a sternly-clipped evergreen hedge doubly exciting, by virtue of contrasting geometry as well as color.  Just be sure there's enough space between the Hamamelis and the hedge that the hedge gets all the sun it needs to grow thickly right to the ground.  Then you can keep it closely pruned, and maximize the contrast with the natural branching pattern of the Hamamelis

 

The upright branching of Hamamelis provides plenty of headroom for underplantings.  The shortest—and also the most colorful at the very same season the Hamamelis is in bloom—would be winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis.  This tiny bulb's weather-proof flowers are every bit as saturated a yellow as the flowers of 'Arnold Promise.'  Even the lowest evergreen groundcovers, vinca and pachysandra, are too tall for Eranthis, but create a dense evergreen carpet that shows the shrub off well.  For a slightly-higher evergreen underplanting, consider prostrate plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Prostrata'; higher still, this cultivar of true yew, Taxus baccata 'Repandens'.   

 

The real excitement for plant partners would be something vining or scrambling, and in bloom in Spring or Summer, that could be trained up through the shrub.  Few hardy possibilities that bloom in Spring and Summer are attractive when out of leaf in the Winter, and north of Zone 7 there are no vines with showy flowers that are evergreen, either.  The obvious choices, at least in terms of flowers—roses or clematis—become leafless soon after the first major frost, putting their awkward and often tangled stems on full display.  Their mess would be a distraction from the Hamamelis, which doesn't reach the peak of its Fall foliage color until well beyond that first frost.  And all of them are still leafless when the Hamamelis starts into bloom in the Winter.  Climbers that self-cling, such as ivy or climbing hydrangea or euonymus, would be an even greater challenge, because they could easily obscure the Winter flowers.

 

And yet the witch hazel's expanse of warm-weather foliage—high quality but, nonetheless, a bit bland—beckons temptingly.  One solution would be one of the Group C clematis:  These are cut down to the lowest buds of their stems each Spring, anyway, to bloom on the new growth of that Summer.  Why not cut them down in late Fall instead of the Spring?  Then the mess of a typical out-of-leaf clematis wouldn't be an eyesore when the Hamamelis itself is leafless.  Wait until January to prune your clematis, so your pruning will have the least chance of encouraging new growth while cold weather is still very much the norm.  It would set back the entire clematis if the pruning stimulated new growth in a mild spell, but that growth was then killed by the return of true Winter weather.

 

Another consideration is the length of Summer growth a Group C clematis might make.  Some will grow to fifteen or even twenty feet—but a mature 'Arnold Promise' is big enough for even the largest, such as Clematis fargesii.

Where to use it in your garden

'Arnold Promise' is such a show in February and March that you'll want to be able to enjoy it at close-range.  You'll need access right up to the shrub, also, so you can enjoy the flowers' fragrance.  If possible, site 'Arnold Promise' near a walkway or driveway, so you can access it without having to walk over lawn that, in the dead of Winter, could be sopping or even muddy.  And while 'Arnold Promise' looks terrific arising from a very large underplanting of low evergreens, they could make direct access to the flowers difficult.  Put in a few stepping stones so you'll have secure footing.

 

There are so many garden-worthy cultivars of witch hazel, that you could easily have several.  In that case, site one of the softer-hued cultivars by the pathway or driveway, and use 'Arnold Promise' as a brilliant cold-weather focal as far in the distance as your garden permits.  If backed by evergreens, it will show up like a beacon.  If the vista is more than a hundred feet, plant as a grove instead of as a solo, spacing fifteen feet apart.  Three 'Arnold Promise' would be a thrill; five or more (in staggered rows, keeping each shrub fifteen feet from all of its neighbors) would be an astonishment.

Culture

Almost any soil that doesn't get too dry, in full sun to light shade.  Succeeds in clay, as well as with occasional flooding.

How to handle it: The Basics

Hamamelis x intermedia is very accommodating, succeeding in almost any soil as long as it isn't too dry.  It thrives in high shade, such as under oaks or tulip trees, as well as in full sun.  Plant either in Fall or Spring. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Wherever you locate it, give 'Arnold Promise' all the room it needs to spread naturally.  This is not a shrub for configuring into an espalier, nor does it branch out readily enough to succeed as a pollard or coppice.

Nonetheless, some subtle pruning is usually a help.  You could remove the lowest branches to bring more light to the shrub's underplantings, but be careful not to raise the canopy so high than the flowers are out of range for direct nose-to-flower contact.  You could remove a branch or two from the canopy itself to bring even more light.  The goal is a branching pattern that looks natural and easy.

Quirks or special cases

A few branches of 'Arnold Promise' brought indoors would be the height of elegance in a vase.  They force easily, too.  Don't harvest too greedily; the shrub doesn't branch out readily enough to withstand it.  For Winter-interest shrubs you can cut from without hesitation, grow willows and Siberian dogwoods.

Downsides

 H. x intermedia is usually propagated by grafting, and the rootstock nearly always suckers.  Clip them off any time you've got the momentum.  If possible, buy Hamamelis that is propagated from cuttings; these will usually be much smaller than grafted shrubs, but Hamamelis grows so fast that there won't be any difference in three or four years.

Variants

There are about five species of Hamamelis, and many score of hybrids among them, with more introduced annually.  Sizes range from true dwarfs of H. vernalis—'Quasimodo' and 'Little Suzie', which get three to four feet tops—to trees of H. virginiana, which can reach almost thirty feet.  Most, though, are large and broad shrubs eight to fifteen feet tall and as wide.  The flowers are highly fragrant, and depending on the species and cultivar, can be in bloom any time from October through March.  As is typical for cool-weather flowerers, the blooming season is long—as much as four weeks.  It's possible, then, to select a collection of a half dozen witch hazels such that at least one of them is in bloom from mid-Fall right through to early Spring.

 

Flowers range from pale yellow to orange, copper, orange-red, and even purple-pink; there are no white witch hazels—yet.  Fall foliage color is usually an enthusiastic yellow, but there's wide variance on how well the foliage is dropped—"dehisced" is the Latin—after it matures to brown.  Whenever possible, select plants that are known to dehisce well.  Hamamelis are such a highlight of gardens in Winter that it's sometimes possible to shop for them when they're in bloom, which is when nurseries would otherwise be closed.  RareFindNursery has a witch hazel festival, with several dozen of their favorites from their very large collection brought into bloom at the same time.  It's worth a day's drive to central New Jersey to enjoy it. 

 

There are some variegates, too, but none are yet so striking that I'm driven to shopping for them.

 

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By cuttings and grafting. 

Native habitat

Hamamelis x intermedia is a hybrid of Hamamelis japonica, native to Japan, and Hamamelis mollis, native to China.  'Arnold Promise' originated at the Arnold Arboretum, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

 

 
 
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