By Dr. Susan Hamilton
Chase away the winter blues with landscape blooms. Japanese cornel dogwood and hybrid witch hazel can start flowering in January, brightening any winter landscape.
When you hear of dogwood, most of us think of our native flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida). But truth be told, between 30 and 50 dogwood species grace our landscapes! Most are deciduous shrubs and trees, some are herbaceous perennial plants, and a few of the woody species are evergreen.
Hybrid witch hazel is a wonderful winter bloomer. Botanically known as Hamamelis x intermedia (a cross between Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel, and H. japonica, the Japanese witch hazel), this deciduous shrub also flowers from January into March, depending on the cultivar. Flower color ranges from yellow to red to orange. Flowering is most profuse when grown in full sun, but it can grow in partial shade. An added bonus is that the narrow ribbon-like, crinkly petals, which can grow up to one-inch long, can be highly fragrant. The intoxicating fragrance intensifies when you cut a branch to bring inside. A difficult scent to describe, I guarantee it is one that few could resist.
Hybrid witch hazel is an upright-growing shrub with ascending branches and a spreading habit. Depending upon cultivar, mature plant height can range from 6 to 20 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. Coarse, green foliage during the summer turns warm gold to orange and even deep purple-red in the fall.
Easily grown in moist but well-drained soils, hybrid witch hazel prefers organically rich soils. If desired, prune in spring after flowering to control its shape and size. Hybrid witch hazel is a great plant for a mixed shrub border or a woodland garden. There are literally hundreds of cultivars of hybrid witch hazel. ‘Jelena’ (also known as ‘Copper Beauty’) is fragrant with coppery-bronze flowers and orange-red fall foliage, and it’s among my favorite selections. ‘Arnold Promise’ has extra large, fragrant primrose-yellow flowers and blooms intensely for up to three weeks. ‘Diane’ is a red-flowered form with yellow-orange-red fall foliage, and ‘Ruby Glow’ (also known as ‘Adonis’ and ‘Rubra Superba’) has coppery-red flowers with a mild fragrance and striking orange-red fall foliage.
The shrub’s name “witch” is actually a derivative from the Anglo-Saxon word “wych,” meaning flexible. Native Americans used the shrub’s pliant branches to make bows, and the leaves and bark in poultices to reduce swelling and inflammation. To this day, witch hazel is the active ingredient in many remedies, including hemorrhoid medications and lotions for treating bruises and insect bites. Extracts from its bark and leaves are also used in the cosmetic industry as an old-fashioned astringent.
One of my favorites, the Japanese cornel dogwood is a beautiful winter-flowering tree. Native to Japan and Korea, Cornus officinalis usually grows as a large, spreading, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrub to a small tree up to 20 feet tall. From January into March, small but showy clusters of yellow flowers bloom. These blooms are followed in fall by showy red fruits (drupes) that are technically edible, but most would find them bitter. The variable fall foliage colors for Japanese cornel dogwood range from pale yellow to reddish purple, along with a colorful exfoliating bark with rich grays, browns and oranges.
A deciduous tree, Japanese cornel dogwood is effective in foundation plantings, shrub borders, woodland gardens, bird gardens or naturalized areas. This dogwood resembles – but should not be confused with – Cornus mas (Corneliancherry dogwood). The Japanese cornel dogwood grows with a slightly more open habit, flowers 1-2 weeks earlier and has more attractive bark than Corneliancherry dogwood.
Plant this garden in a site with full sun to partial shade. Several great selections are on the market for this dogwood, which tolerates a variety of soils. ‘Kintoki’ is known for smaller growth and heavy flowering. ‘Lemon Zest’ boasts larger flowers. ‘Issai Minan’ flowers as a young plant, and ‘Morris Arboretum’ blooms heavily and a bit longer than most cultivars. ‘Sunsphere’ was named after the Knoxville landmark constructed as part of the 1982 World’s Fair. Mike Stansberry, Tennessee nursery owner and UT horticulture alumnus, introduced the ‘Sunsphere’ variety, which flowers earlier than others in the species. Stansberry’s Beaver Creek Nursery is located on Pelleaux Road in Knoxville less than 5 miles from Interstate 75.