Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise’

February 4, 2020

when we plant a tree, two trees take root:

the one that lifts its leaves into the air,

and the inverted one that cleaves the soil

to find the runnel’s sweet, dull silver trace

and spreads not up but down, each drop a leaf

in the eternal blackness of that sky…

            -Roy Scheele

Reprising our “who does your garden grow” theme, we might say that Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, the ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel provides us with two-for-one flora commemoration.

First though, highlighted is the delightful, curious reality that this shrub usually opens its flowers during February. Granted the flowers are diminutive, four strap-shaped petals, ½-inch long and 1/16-inch wide, albeit with a brilliant yellow/gold color. The blooming time, often even during a snowfall, enlarges beyond their size the ornamental value in an often drab winter landscape. In severe snowstorms and/or extreme cold temperatures, these flowers curl up until the weather moderates. Long before the golden daffodils or forsythia bloom to announce springtime to New Englanders, the ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel has made the floral promise of a spring to come.

Our two-for-one floral commemoration begins at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. We excerpt from a 1981 article by Richard E. Weaver Jr. in Arnoldia, “In 1928, William Judd, the propagator at the time, collected seeds from a plant of the Chinese witch hazel, (Hamamelis mollis. The resulting seedlings turned out to be not H. mollis but rather appeared to be hybrids. The pollen parent (analogous to the father plant) was eventually determined to have been a closely adjacent plant of H. japonica, the Japanese witch hazel. Alfred Rehder in 1944 named the hybrid H. x intermedia, because its character was intermediate between its parents. Seven plants grew from the original hybrid seeds collected by William Judd…but one was spectacularly different with its profuse, slightly fragrant, clear yellow flowers…given the clonal name ‘Arnold Promise’.”

Our first floral commemoration honored the Arnold Arboretum. However, the Arboretum’s name itself honors James Arnold (1781-1868), born to a Quaker family of Providence, Rhode Island. Arnold later moved to New Bedford, working in the then prosperous whaling business. In time his estate totaling 11 acres, extensively planted, was opened to townspeople as well as visiting notables such as past President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), landscape designer, writer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) and author Herman Melville (1819-1891). Arnold entered cultivated varieties of peaches and grapes into 1830’s Massachusetts Horticultural Society (MHS) autumn exhibitions, was voted an honorary MHS member and was a founding member of the New Bedford Horticultural Society in 1847.  His wife Sarah and their only child pre-deceased him. Upon his death, with no direct descendants, his estate probated in 1872, provided for Sarah’s relatives, community charitable services and others. One sizable portion was bequeathed in trust to “…be by them applied for the promotion of Agricultural, or Horticultural improvements, or other Philosophical, or Philanthropic purposes at their discretion…” This became the financial beginnings of the Arnold Arboretum.

‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel may grow 15-20-feet high, with an upright spreading habit if not pruned. The early flowers have been observed to last four to six-weeks, or longer varying year to year. Autumn foliage often provides a second season of interest with leaves displaying polychromatic banding of red, gold and green simultaneously. On a future visit to Mount Auburn, look for our ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel at Spruce Knoll, Heath Path and around Willow Pond. We close quoting the great horticulturist Donald Wyman (1904-1993) regarding this plant, “…an old friend, known for its performance…”

About the Author: Jim Gorman

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