Witch hazel

Rosa 'All Ablaze' blazes cherry red in Burke Brothers' Tuscany exhibit, accenting classic Italian elements with bright flowers. (Ron Tarver / Staff photographer)

Witch hazel has a most unfortunate name. Brings to mind Hazel the TV maid and nastiness. But Hamamelis vernalis, a native witch hazel, deserves no such association. I saw this one in a hoop house at Morris Arboretum today. But it was the one I saw from afar, as I walked down the hill toward the arboretum's Fernery (another treat on a winter's day), that made me stop. This shrub's fragrance was so strong, we smelled it from at least 100 yards away. It was light and sweet, so unlike the day, which was dark and freezing, despite a not-so-bad temperature of 43 degrees. Visitors from out West always tell me that the cold in Philadelphia is much colder, probably because of the dampness. It certainly felt that way today. But witch hazel brightens and softens the winter with its spidery blossoms and delicious fragrance. And how about that yellow? Yellow in winter is unexpected, a real tease. And how smart is this guy. The flowers open up on warm, sunny days then - like the people they please - roll up, pull back, when the temperatures drop. It's a survival mechanism, a way to keep from freezing.