Plant Profiles: Corylopsis
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Cora lops this
Buttercup winter hazel(C. pauciflora)
Spike winter hazel (C. spicata)
Wide spreading, dense late-winter-blooming deciduous
shrub; size variable
Sun to part shade, good drainage, adaptable
A must-have late-winter confection; choose species by best size and shape for your garden and underplant with globs of well-timed blue -- Pulmonaria, Ipheion -- you name it.
Love forsythia but hate its messy shape? Hate forsythia but love yellow in the spring? Wish I'd stop asking question and just get on with it? Buy a winter hazel. Now. Either that or come late winter, get thee to an arboretum and treat yourself to one of the season's great gifts, Corylopsis pauciflora.
This increasingly popular member of the witch hazel family drips buttercup yellow blossoms in late winter -- not the starburst straps of Hamamelis but the pendulous chimes of Ribes (flowering currant), each an exquisitely carved luster of great distinction. By comparison, the flowers of forsythia seem coarse and windblown.
The color's classy, too, more pastel than opaque, a moderating companion for louder bulbs such as brilliant dwarf daffodils or fat Dutch crocus. Quite ample on its own (the species name pauciflora, meaning "few-flowered" refers to the size of the clusters, not the number), the buttercup winter hazel is at its most dazzling against a dark background.
Unlike forsythia, C. pauciflora works all year for a living, with a handsome habit and a modest average height of five feet, which keeps it from overwhelming a small space. Its leaves are heavily veined like those of the witch hazels but are deliciously diminutive; frankly I'm undone even by its compelling, bite-size leaf buds. Come fall, the buttercup winter hazel can have a good amber color but doesn't compare with witch hazel's autumn display.
Admittedly, I inherited my woody-plants professor's prejudice toward the refined C. pauciflora, but I saw some killer specimens of the spike winter hazel, C. spicata, at a flower show. This species has a much more open and spreading habit, capable of ten-foot wingspan, with flower chains decorated by red-purple anthers, the cluster's length probably twice that of C. pauciflora. C spicata flowers happily in part shade but, unlike C. pauciflora, welcomes full sun.
Certainly the spike winter hazel makes a more dramatic specimen if you have the space and crave the presence (even after the flowers, its young leaves emerge a show-stopping purple bronze). Both species are equally hardy, though once in a blue moon the flower buds may be damaged by an unexpected late freeze.
For -20 degree F hardiness, the species of choice is the fragrant winter hazel, C. glabrescens (or its cultivar 'Longwood Chimes'), capable of growing to twelve to fifteen feet high with similar spread. The trick to using this imposing form -- and C. spicata for that matter -- is to limb it up into a multistemmed tree and make it a scaffold for summer blooming vines.
If you're feeling overwhelmed with choices, let space be the deciding factor and promptly look at some other plant. Otherwise you're likely to find out about C. 'Winterthur', reputedly a cross between C. spicata and C. pauciflora, introduced at the du Pont estate garden of that name in Delaware. It's said to combine the fragrance of one parent with the fine dense habit of the other; after twenty-five years, the original specimen remains twelve feet tall. All of which takes me full-circle as I repeat: If you can find it, buy it.