Thursday, March 1, 2012

What's up with Witch Hazels?

    Check out the stubs at the base of this Hamamelis 'Arnold's Promise' trunk. These are the SUCKERS I cut off this summer. This is a GRAFTED plant. If you don't watch for and cut off the suckers, it will revert to the rootstock which is NOT what you bought.
Day 43
The Daily DuBrule

In the last week, I have fielded more questions about winter blooming witch hazels than I can remember. For anyone who knows my style, if I get more than a few questions, I WRITE about it. Then I post my writings as a handout on my website. So here goes...

If you have a hybrid witch hazel such as 'Arnold's Promise', 'Diane', 'Jelena', and a host of other FABULOUS flowering trees that are in bloom right now, listen up and then spread the word. These plants are grafted onto a rootstock that is not the same as the top. If you don't know this (and I didn't until two years ago) and you plant one of these wonderful winter blooming trees, you may be surprised when not only it doesn't flower profusely for you in March, it also fails to flower when you cut the stems for forcing. Why? Because the rootsock, which is really vigorous and hardy, has taken over the top grafted plant and become way too greedy, overtaking the floriferous top plant that you THOUGHT you purchased. This happened to me.

One of the first trees I planted when I bought my house 8 years ago was an 'Arnold's Promise' witch hazel. As I write this on the first day of  March, the intoxicating, spicy scent of this magnificent winter flowering tree fills my home office. I picked the branches yesterday, right before the impending snow storm. The first year after I planted this tree I was a very patient woman, not expecting much. I got a few flowers but nothing too amazing. Year two I was ready for a big show My tree had grown a lot in the summer but when I examined it in the fall I didn't see ANY flower buds. I was crushed. On close examination, I noticed that 50% of the tree consisted of suckers arising from-wait for it-below graft. What? I didn't know this plant was grafted. I went right to the phone and called Mike Johnson, the owner of Summer Hill Nurseries in Madison, CT, my nursery stock guru. "Of course they are grafted" he told me. You need to watch them like a hawk and cut off all the suckers as they appear or else the plant will be overtaken...blah blah blah. Who knew? 

Anyway, since then, I have been ever-vigilant. It's not really a big deal. A couple of times a year I go at it with my pruners and cut off any suckers I see sprouting from below graft. My tree is happy, healthy, and in full bloom right now.

Today I did a consultation for a friend in Wethersfield. Her 'Arnold's Promise' is a mutated pale orange flowering tree with stubby flowers that come from the below-graft rootstock, nothing like it was supposed to be but still, I guess, pretty enough. My friend Robin emailed me after the last class I taught saying that she tried to force her witch hazel branches and got nothing but leaves. All I could think of was that her original tree was overtaken by the below graft suckers and is now a different plant, probably Hamamelis virginiana, our native late fall blooming witch hazel. No wonder she doesn't see any late winter flowers, either in a vase or in the garden.

I think every tree that is grafted should come with a label telling the gardener that they should watch for suckers. This is what happens with 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' contorted hazels. I have seen it occur with weeping cherries that all of the sudden are huge and upright and don't weep anymore. The average homeowner has no knowledge of grafted plants. It's something that I, as a garden center owner and educator, need to take very seriously as one of my new missions in life. 
My 'Arnold's Promise' witch hazel AFTER cutting off the suckers last year and this year. It's true identity has made itself clear.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Nancy,

    I was searching for information about our very bizarre witch hazel plant and stumbled upon your interesting blog. I wonder if you or any of your readers have seen this before:

    We planted a "Vernal Witchhazel" (Hamamelis vernalis) in our back yard in Annandale VA last fall -- purchased from a local, reputable garden center. (Sadly, my husband and I totally missed the flowering but did see the dried blossoms so assume it flowered. Like many parts of the country we had a mild winter and early spring.) But here's the bizarre part: IT LOOKS LIKE BUDS ARE GROWING OUT OF THE LEAVES THEMSELVES. KINDA CREEPY LOOKING! I can't imagine this is normal and have been meaning to take a leaf to the garden center. Meantime in reading your post about grafting I wondered if maybe we have a plant with some sort of weird mutation. Any thoughts?!