March has come and with it high winds and unpredictable weather. In my neck of the woods the witch hazels are in bloom. They are one indispensable part of this very early spring season, a harbinger of the end of winter. They give a touch of color to nearly bare flower gardens. Once you see a well grown little tree festooned with its party blowout flowers, you are intrigued, but when you smell their fragrance you are hooked.
Yesterday I drove some twenty miles to a specialist nursery in Hamden CT. (Broken Arrow Nursery, and no, I’m not affiliated) which has quite a selection of witch hazels. I wanted to see them in bloom and breath in, because I knew that the fragrance was going to be a big part of my decision.
After greeting the nursery dog, an old black and white springer spaniel named Panda, I got to see the witch hazels. They were stored in a tent covered in plastic sheeting against the worst of the wind, and were mostly in bloom. The colors of flower ranged from pale yellow through daffodil, to gold, orange, russet, and finally a deep burgundy red that verged on purple. The first thing that you noticed was the perfume- unlike anything else I know, it filled the hut.
Witch hazels have an appropriately haunting scent. “The fragrance is unbelievable, the pure delicious perfume of jonquil, and it carries many yards.” That’s the comment from The Fragrant Year, Reddel and Galyean in Growing Fragrant Plants, call it …”incense like and addictive.” Which is it?
I thought eau de witchhazel was closer to Reddel and Galyean’s incense observation. My particular plant is one of the most fragrant, a hybrid called “Aurora” because the ribbon flowers are somewhere between orange and peach in color, like dawn ,and the perfume is very sophisticated. This is not a narcotic white flower scent, and is not a soil scent either. Slightly woody, with a nod to sandalwood and iris, there is a distinct high pitched sweetness that is on the edge of the perfume, slightly similar to cyclamen. The witch hazels don’t veer into indolic territory. There is something fresh about the smell, almost something chilly. Incense is what I’m left with, but not smoldering incense, long snuffed out incense in a stone church. It’s a beautiful scent.
If you have garden space for these, and they can reach the size of a good lilac bush, then do consider one. Many also have bright fall foliage which make them pretty two times a year and they bloom right along with your crocuses and snow drops.They even bloom in the snow. I should know because it is snowing here today and Aurora seems to be taking the weather into her stride.
If like me you have to contend with deer, then take care to plant your witch hazels a bit off their paths or near your house because deer will eat these and that would be a shame. Otherwise, what a wonderful way to extend the gardening season.
Is there a perfume out there that recalls this? All I could think of was a far lighter Bois d’Armenie. You should take a sniff yourself though. Witch hazel perfume is too bewitching to miss.