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The Self-Taught Gardener: Signs of Life

In the face of warming winters, our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala finds hope in the common witch hazel, which can adapt to any weather.

As Antarctica and Brooklyn and the woods of the Berkshires ascend to unseasonable and often record-breaking temperatures this February, there is much to be alarmed about. I talk about this issue on winter walks with friends, whether we are traversing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or ambling down Rannopo Road in Ashley Falls on a warm sunny President’s Day. This recent warm weather makes me think we should consider designating President’s Day as the first day of spring. All around us there are signs of things coming to life. Magnolia buds swelling months early cause me to fear that their blossoms may open too soon and be taken under by an unexpected (but historically highly seasonable) freeze. A silvery rosette of a mullein shows signs of new leaf formation, with new growth that may or may not survive a typical seasonal blizzard.

The strappy petals of witch hazels have evolved to unfurl on warm days and retract as temperatures dive so that these flowers can thrive in the unpredictable season in which they bloom.

This forward movement of the seasons should concern us all but, with all that is going on politically and with the loss of my dog several weeks back, I find myself in a moment where signs of life and renewal are most welcome. For better or worse, I am excited to see what the lengthening of days is bringing, even if some of it seems too fast and too soon. It feels restorative, like the sight and scent of the hyacinths in an arrangement that arrived at my home last week to carry me through the doldrums of winter and the collection of Fred’s ashes from the veterinarian. Unseasonable weather aside, a part of me is grateful and hungry for this movement forward.

‘Diane’ variety of witch hazel

In the depths of winter and in this moment of loss, I am desperate for signs of new life, like the beagle puppy that jumped onto my legs as I exited a car on the Upper West Side of Manhattan last week. In these fraught times, I will take such moments wherever I find them and work to embrace them fully. It was with this need in mind that I slipped into the Brooklyn Botanical Garden last week. I wanted to take in one of my favorite moments in the winter garden – the flowering of witch hazels.

The flowers of  ‘Dane’ remind me of the embers of a fire on a cold winter night and provide me with the same sense of warmth and comfort.

I admit they may be advancing too early, but not so much to cause the same consternation I get from other a-bit-too-early signs of life. Witch hazel plants bear flowers that are remarkably adapted to the unpredictability of the season in which they flower, and seemingly to the era in which we now live. This is true of both the late-winter-blooming varieties, mainly derived from crosses between Asian species, and our fall-blooming native form from which the astringent in our medicine cabinets is derived. Their strap-like, often highly fragrant, flowers have reduced petals, ranging in color from purple to orange and yellow. The petals can curl back up on colder days and unfurl like the scarf around my neck on this fine warm winter day. It is a comfort to see something in bloom at this time of year without fretting about its survival.

The yellow tones of ‘Wisley’ are like the morning sun and enter the landscape at a moment when we need to be reminded of the sun’s warm embrace.

The witch hazel flowers, varying as they do in scent, in color and in bloom time, hold promise in a time of year and in an era when such hope seems more necessary than ever. It gives me hope that, with proper stewardship and care (and a good scarf), we too might adapt to the world we inhabit. From the red-toned spicy flowers of ‘Jelena’ to the butter-yellow, gently perfumed strappy blooms of ‘Wisley’, and the slightly brighter yellow flowers of the hopefully monikered variety ‘Arnold’s Promise,’ witch hazels provide me with a sense of equanimity. And, as with the sun that comes up progressively earlier each successive day at this time of year, I am taking comfort from them.

‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel

In this genus of plants, numerous cultivars are being developed that hold much promise, and I hope next February to head to the Chicago Botanic Garden to see those under evaluation by my friend Richard Hawkey. I look forward to embracing the range of scents and colors and bloom times. To me, this is one more celebration of diversity in the natural kingdom, like the beagle puppy who resembled my beloved Fred yet was completely his own creature. Adaptability — of a species, of a mindset, and of the narratives we use to define our lives and world — is necessary, now more than ever. And I hope to bring back to my own home and garden these living reminders of all the world has to offer. I treasure the tangerine-flowered and aptly named witch hazel ‘Aurora’ that already inhabits my garden. In this bountiful genus, I see the dawn of a new time that, like all sunrises, symbolizes the promise of what is to come if we only leave ourselves open.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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