The thicket of Corylopsis (Winter hazel) glows and beckons from the distant corner of my yard. Being the first of the plants in that spot to wake, and before their leaves even unfurl, the hundreds of delicate and dangling yellow flowers catch my eye from afar.
Years ago I was gifted ten or so unmarked 2 gallon pots of Corylopsis. The grower, Randy Raub, had a surplus, and they were becoming pot bound and too heavy to drag to market each week. I was thrilled. I just so happened to have a vast area ready to plant.
The far side of my pond had been a patch of weak, weedy grasses and the occasional scotch broom that could barely get a foothold in heavily compacted fill. After 2 summers of improving the soil with copious compost, cover crops and rototilling, the Winter hazel were planted en masse into the newly rich and roomy soil. 18 or so years later, it is an amazing hedgerow: intentionally wild and almost impenetrable. Birds forage and nest there.
Other than a good soaking about once a month through their first summer in the ground, these Corylopsis have thrived without a gardener’s guiding hand to prune, water, fertilize or fuss. In fact, I rarely think of them until spring when they gently call me to appreciate their carefree charm. When graced by early rays of sunshine, and again late in the day, the flowers positively light up.
Though without plant tags, I can see two distinct forms amongst my plants. One shorter, most similar to C. pauciflora (Buttercup Winter Hazel), with drooping flower racemes of creamy yellow bells. Those plants are about 6′ high and wide. The second form is stretching to 12′ and beyond now, so could be a C. sinensis hybrid with longer clusters of pendant yellow bells crowded with dark anthers. All are as wide as they are tall, with their horizontal branch structures criss-crossing and sharing the same space happily. Were they to grow in more sun, they would likely be more densely branched, but they tend to a very open and horizontal form naturally. The vase shape is all the better to show off the flowers.
In another area of the garden I have a C. pauciflora trained as a standard, or single trunked tree. Its not as vigorous as the shrubs in the thicket, being grafted onto a root stock that constrains its growth. It, too, has the demure charm of producing hanging panicles of buttery bells before the leaves break. The standard, like the typical shrub form, has the oval shaped leaves commonly found in the Hamamelidaceae (Witch hazel) family.
I have read that Winter hazel flowers are fragrant, but I’ve not detected a scent. No matter, it needs no perfume to capture my heart. In spring, its sweet awakening reminds us of our beloved, long-departed cat who shared the name Hazel. And while some might say her calico personality would be better represented with Witch hazel, Corylopsis reminds us of her all the same.