By Charles Kidder
“Contestants, the category is Ornamental Shrubs. This shrub blooms at about the same time as Forsythia and has pale yellow, fragrant flowers? Please be sure your answer is in the form of a question.” (Cue the Final Jeopardy jingle. And now that will be going through your head for the rest of the day.)
Time’s up. “What is Corylopsis or Winterhazel”? And I would indeed be impressed if anyone guessed this based on the fairly scanty clue. Hailing from East Asia, these shrubs are not well known in American gardens, certainly a shame. Flowers and fragrance in early spring are hard to beat.
The Winterhazels should not be confused with the Witchhazels, although they are in the same family of plants, possibly accounting for the early spring bloom time and the fragrant flowers found in both groups. Another possible source of confusion if you’re using scientific names: Corylus, the Filbert or Hazel, has a similar name, but is in the birch family. And there’s that “hazel” bit to add to the muddle.
Getting to know the winterhazels is a bit difficult, since they are “taxonomically confused,” as the botanists would say. (Are the plants confused, or the botanists?) They have at various times determined that there are as many as 30 species, or as few as seven. We’ll only look at a few here, and even then with the caveat that you might run across a plant with a different name, albeit similar to the one that I have used. The upshot: it’s probably the same plant, so buy it if you like it. (Anybody reminded of T.S. Eliot’s The Naming of Cats?)
All the winterhazels are multi-stemmed shrubs, and they can get pretty sizeable, particularly in spread. Leaves are ovate and slightly toothed, sometimes with a blue-green cast, and don’t provide much in the way of fall color. Prominent veins on the leaves give a natty, pleated effect. Flowers are generally described as buttercup yellow; although individually small, they’re clustered in dangly racemes, and open before the leaves appear.
If you want a relatively tall specimen, look for Corylopsis sinensis var. calvescens (sometimes known as Chinese Winterhazel), which can reach heights of 12’ to 15’. Fragrant Winterhazel (C. glabrescens) can be almost as large, but it can be found in a much smaller variety, ‘March Jewel’. This little guy only gets to about 1½ feet tall and 5 feet wide in 10 years. Plant guru Michael Dirr says it “appears woven from willow stems.”
Fairly tidy in size, C. spicata (Spike Winterhazel) will generally get to 4’ to 6’ high, with a somewhat greater spread. This may be the most floriferous of all the winterhazels, with little flowers hanging like tassels. In spring, the leaves emerge wine-purple, then change to bluish green. A few cultivars of Spike Winterhazel are out there, ‘Aurea’ likely being the most widely available. (Plants labeled as ‘Ogon’ or ‘Golden Spring’ are either the same plant or very similar.) Leaves will emerge yellow-gold, but will gradually change to green in our summer heat. ‘Red Eye’ has reddish stamens protruding from the flower, but this would only be noticeable on close inspection.
Also modest in size is C. pauciflora, the Buttercup Winterhazel. It’s generally listed as a plant that reaches 4’ to 6’, with a slightly greater spread. In the U.K., where ornamental plants have often been in the ground for centuries, there is a fifteen-foot specimen, however. Notwithstanding, it’s a daintier shrub than the other winterhazels. As for the pauciflora epithet, don’t worry that there will be a paucity of flowers. The individual flowers are just slightly smaller, and fewer are in each cluster.
The differences among all the winterhazels are not great—again, are there 30 species, or is it seven?—and their growing requirements are essentially the same. Partial shade is best, meaning high, overhead tree cover for most of the day, or perhaps a few hours of morning sun. Soils should provide that elusive combination of moisture and good drainage. If you can’t provide that ideal mix, at least insure that your winterhazel has adequate moisture and is not sited in a soggy corner of your yard. Also, avoid windy, exposed situations; this can be easily achieved by putting your plant in a woodland.
You may not find winterhazels at every garden center or big box store, but specialty places should either have them in the spring or be able to order one. They are a nice alternative to the “Hey, over here, look at me!” screaming-yellow of forsythia. If you happen to have both, keep the winterhazel away from the forsythia, or you might end up with an unfortunate color clash.
And now, how much did you wager in the Final Jeopardy round?