Green Spring Gardens is not only a Fairfax County Park Authority historic property, it is also on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. Something else that makes Green Spring unique, not only in Northern Virginia but in the nation, is its National Witch Hazel Collection — and winter is the best time to enjoy these delightful shrubs.
The Witch Hazel Collection
Green Spring’s witch hazel collection began in 1989 with the planting of six witch hazels that were donated by the Chapel Square Garden Club of Annandale, Virginia. After Witch Hazel Road was built in 2004, more witch hazels were planted along that road, around the Historic House, and throughout the gardens. Green Spring now has more than 200 witch hazels on 32 acres, at least half of which are planted along Witch Hazel Road between the park entrance and the Historic House grounds.
In 1999, Green Spring Gardens was selected by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta to become the home of the National Witch Hazel Collection. The collection is now part of the Plant Collections Network, which is administered by the American Public Gardens Association. If you have ever wondered about the design of the Green Spring Gardens logo, you can now recognize and understand the witch hazel leaf and flower on it.
Witch hazels are part of the genus Hamamelis, and Green Spring Gardens grows North American and Asian species (Japanese and Chinese) as well as hybrids and cultivars. Hamamelis comes from the Greek words hama, which means “at the same time,” and melon, referring to “apple or fruit,” because the fruit containing last year’s seeds, as well as the flowers and often even the leaves and new leaf buds, are all on the shrub at the same time.
The common name “witch hazel” probably references the Anglo-Saxon word wych or wich, which means pliable or bendable. Hazel refers to leaves that resemble those of a hazelnut tree. Early Americans used the pliable twigs of the witch hazel to locate water sources by performing “water witching,” “divining,” or “dowsing” activities — and they usually found water because witch hazels happen to like moist, well-drained soils.
Witch Hazels in the Gardens
In fall, the soft, green, summer leaves of witch hazels begin to change colors. Depending on the species, hybrid, or cultivar, witch hazels can turn various shades of yellow, orange, red, and even reddish-purple, adding beautiful color and interest to your fall landscape. The leaves drop at different rates in preparation for the flowering season, which spans late fall to early spring. Depending on the type of witch hazel and the growing conditions, they can bloom as early as October and as late as March. The majority bloom from January through March.
Both the strap-like petals and the cup-like calyx at the center of the bloom contribute to the color effects of the different witch hazels. Various combinations of yellows, oranges, reds and purples add color and texture to your winter landscape, and many of them bloom for up to eight weeks. On colder days, the petals curl up and then unfurl again on warmer days.
Witch hazels can be large shrubs or small trees. They often have a natural horizontal habit, growing as wide as they are tall. Most will measure from five to 20 feet, though some may grow as tall as 30 feet and have a more vertical, vase-like shape. Witch hazels do well in dappled shade or full sun, and they work well as understory plants along with groundcovers and early spring-blooming bulbs and perennials, especially hellebores. During fall and winter, flies and small bees are the plant’s most common pollinators, and its seeds provide food for the birds and small mammals that find shelter among its twiggy branches.
Witch Hazel Species
The hardiest witch hazel is the common Hamamelis virginiana, which is native to Virginia and grows well in part shade. It is mostly a fall bloomer with yellow, spider-like flowers. Examples of other North American witch hazels grown at Green Spring Gardens are the Ozarks native, Hamamelis vernalis, and the Mississippi native, Hamamelis ovalis. The Asian witch hazels at Green Spring include the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and the Japanese Hamamelis japonica. Hybrids of the Chinese and Japanese witch hazels are referred to as Hamamelis x intermedia. The Asian hybrids tend to be bud-grafted, and the Chinese witch hazel tends to be the most fragrant and showy with its yellow ribbon-like flowers.
Come visit the National Witch Hazel Collection at Green Spring Gardens on a warm winter’s day to enjoy their colorful winter blooms and enticing fragrance.
Learn more about the National Witch Hazel Collection on the Green Spring Gardens web site and in this video:
Author Karen Aftergut works at Green Spring Gardens and has been an Extension Master Gardener since 2014.