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Cannon: Witch hazel is a lovely tree for winter
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As a gardener, I am always in to finding and planting new trees, shrubs and flowers. I especially like to find and share with others some of my favorite plants for a winter garden.

Whether it is striking bark, colorful berries or an early blooming winter flower that brightens up the bleak landscape, all of these wonderful qualities can liven up a bare yard or garden.

One of my favorite winter shrubs is the Chinese witch hazel. Depending on the cultivar, their wispy blooms can be yellow, orange or red. The shrub’s brilliant colors, sweet fragrance and upright spreading branch form quickly perk up an otherwise dreary space.

I love a plant that has a rich history and witch hazel does not disappoint. British settlers used witch hazel as a water wand, and its name is derived from the old English word "wyche," which means bendable.

Dowsers, as they were called, used the crooked branches to seek out the water.

Also, Native Americans in the South gathered the capsule-like fruit the plant produces and used their white, oily edible interiors for medicinal purposes. The nutty seeds of the witch hazel taste like pistachio nuts.

Another legend about how the witch hazel got its name comes from the way it propagates. It is unusual for a plant to have fruit and flower present at the same time, but the witch hazel does just that.

The woody seed capsules mature, dry and split open with a distinctive popping sound that can propel a pair of seeds up to 30 feet. This could be why the early settlers thought the plants might be haunted.

There are many cultivars of witch hazels. Some are better performers than others and some will not drop their leaves to show the bloom.

Michael Dirr, a former and popular UGA Professor of Horticulture at the College of Agriculture says his favorite is the cultivar "Arnold Promise." It has a smooth gray bark and fragrant yellow flowers. The leaves have a wonderful orange and red fall color. But most important is its early blooming characteristics in the dead of winter.

Witch hazel is not only a popular winter blooming shrub, but it is also known for its spicy and sometimes musky fragrance.

Chinese witch hazel and its cultivars such as Goldcrest have the strongest scents. The branching qualities are upright with crooked stems, which makes the shrub a great cutting plant to use indoors in flower arrangements. Just make sure the seed pods are removed before you bring the cuttings in where they do not fire off unexpectedly.

Chinese witch hazel is a true shrub for all seasons and they grow well in our planting zone 7B -8A. This woodland native tolerates shade and sun, can grow in wet or dry soil, and it especially tolerates our clay soils.

It is truly a low-maintenance plant that if given good drainage and a slightly acidic soil, will bloom profusely year after year. Witch hazels are also disease- and pest-free in most conditions.

Witch hazels can grow anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall. Prune them immediately after blooming to keep them trimmed and shaped if desired. They are also attractive in a natural setting without cutting.

Chinese Loropetalum, a part of the witch hazel family, is another popular shrub that was introduced from Asia around 1989. This type of witch hazel will bloom later in the spring and sometimes into late summer and fall.

Fringe flower, as it is commonly called, is an easy shrub to find and purchase in this area. The shrub displays clusters of white or pink flowers that dangle like fringe.

Loropetalum is a great foundation plant. Its growing habit is loose and open and only needs pruning to control the size desired. It can also be used in containers, and its striking foliage makes it a popular hedge or screening plant.

Now is a great time to plant witch hazels, which can be difficult to find. But they are truly worth the search.

Thanks to UGA Extension Service and

Wanda Cannon is a Master Gardener trained through the Hall County program and also serves as Master Gardener coordinator and horticulture assistant for the Hall County Extension office. Phone: 770-535-8293. er column appears biweekly and on