Eric’s Pet Plant: Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora)

Winter is finally upon us. Not counting the stubborn grass and a few stalwart edibles, everything green is common evergreen: juniper, arbor vitae, boxwood, rhododendron…

And almost everything deciduous is down to the bare branches, many of them in need of shaping. What all this is reminding me is that I definitely need some snazzy new material for the string of garden beds that will (next spring) finally be unified into a single sweep of Things That Look Good From Inside The House When Inside Is Where We Are Most Of The Time.

Enter Eric’s excellent suggestion:

Corylopsis pauciflora – earlier than forsythia, far more delicate and FAR more fragrant, to say nothing of better behaved.

Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora)

By Eric Larson

The winterhazels (Corylopsis species) are in the witchhazel family (Hamamelidaceae) and have many of the witchhazels’ virtues: fragrant flowers on bare branches, wide adaptability and ease of care. But unlike most of its siblings and cousins, Buttercup winter hazel is on the short side. It tops out at six or seven feet, ideal for the home landscape where space is at a premium. And it grows at a modest rate to its eventual manageable size, leaving little need for corrective or size pruning

In mid- to late April, this dainty shrub pops into bloom with a display of buttercup yellow flower clusters. The fragrance is delicate yet quite noticeable, making it perfect for end of the shrub border nearest the breakfast terrace (if you are lucky enough to have such an architectural element). New leaves show red edges before darkening to rich green, then (with luck) turn a rich gold-bronze before falling to reveal the slender but sturdy branches.

Witchhazels (Hamamelis species) bloom at different times: North American mostly in fall, the Chinese and other Asian species and many of their crosses generally in the late winter to early spring, much earlier than our Corylopsis. If you plant as many of the Hamamelidaceae as you can find – and fit in – you can enjoy their flowers for a good part of the year, but if you only have room for one this may be the one for you.

Like most of the Hamamelidaceae, C. pauciflora has very few insect or disease problems to worry about. This combines with its modest pruning needs to make it especially suitable as part of the ‘sustainable’ (was there ever a word so overused?) home landscape. Plant either in spring or fall, in good humus-rich acid soil, being sure to choose a nice partly shady spot.

buttercup winter hazel Corylopsis pauciflora Fall foliage

Our winter hazel here at the garden gets lots of reflected light but no direct sunlight, and it seems to provide plenty of bloom and plenty of fall color, too.

If you can avoid windy exposed locations, you will have better luck with keeping this plant from flagging during the hotter months. In fact, if sited properly, it will need supplemental water only during severe summer drought. Mulch it well, and then let nature take its course.

This is a good addition to the shrub border, but it can also be used as a specimen and as forest underplanting. Planted in front of evergreens, the flowers, spring foliage and fall colors will show up with more contrast. A famous combination at Winterthur Gardens in Delaware includes C. pauciflora and Rhododendron mucronulatum, the soft buttery yellow of the Winterhazel providing perfect counterpoint to the rich almost electric purple of the Azalea, and of course they flower at the exact same time.  I would also look for good combinations with bulbs and other spring flowering perennials.

C. pauciflora can be hard to find, but well stocked independent nurseries sometimes carry it, usually in pots, occasionally  balled-and-burlapped. Spring bloom is fairly consistent and your best chance of finding the plant is in spring. But fall color is highly variable, so if you’re willing to shop around it pays to check out your purchase in fall.

Corylopsis pauciflora (buttercup winter hazel) foliage close up

In general, witchhazels have better fall color than winterhazels, but our winterhazel here at the garden has a rich gold color. In addition, the darker coloration along the leaf edges in the close up shows a nice reddish tint in spring after the flowers have dropped and the leaves emerge. Eventually turning green as the leaves mature, that nice touch of color in May and early June is a good foil for other colors provided by bulbs or herbaceous plants. For instance, there are several Tulips that have the same red tints and tones, so that repeating elements from ground to mid-level can be achieved.

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  • Bea Said,

    How hardy is this lovely sounding plant?
    I live west of Portland, Maine, and would LOVE to try it, but don’t want to doom it to certain failure; also, is this sometimes called ‘Wintersweet’?

    Welcome, Bea
    This winter hazel is certainly hardy enough for you to try – success will depend on good siting and soil and the vagaries of the weather, but your location isn’t by any means a guarantee of doom. Retail nurseries don’t always carry it, but buying from a local source that’s willing to guarantee its survival is always a good strategy. (Wintersweet is Chimonanthus, a different plant altogether).

  • Richard Said,

    My corylopsis seemed to suffer after a recent move to a somewhat more exposed location. Not sure if this was a result of the stress of the move or the new exposure, so I’ve opted for some winter protection and will let you know what happens.

    Hi Richard — Sure hope your plant recovers, whatever the original cause of stress! With any luck everything will be fine as soon as it’s had a while to settle in.

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