In Bloom: The Quietly Elegant Corylopsis

Pine Trees
Pine Trees

In early spring, the fragrant, luminous yellow flowers of Corylopsis appear before the leaves, and are held in short nodding spikes along the branches. Photo: Kurt Kvist.

Many people recognize the bright yellow, late winter flowers of Forsythia – even those who aren’t very interested in plants. Native to China and Korea, it’s long been cultivated in Japan, and has a place (in Area D) in the Seattle Japanese Garden. (The small-flowered Japanese species, Forsythia japonica, is not generally available.) Lesser-known, but also blooming in late winter/early spring, is a beautiful, more elegant shrub with yellow flowers: Corylopsis (winter hazel). There are 3 species in our garden: Corylopsis pauciflora (buttercup winter hazel), C. spicata (spike winter hazel), and C. glabrescens (fragrant winter hazel). All are native to Japan.

The word Corylopsis derives from the Greek korylos (hazelnut) and opsis (resembling), meaning “resembling a hazelnut.” It’s in the witch hazel family, and shares several characteristics with witch hazels (Hamamelis): late winter or early spring bloom, horizontal branching, and pest and disease resistance.

All Corylopsis species grow best in light shade, in moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil. Leaves, which resemble those of hazelnuts, are arranged in an alternate pattern on the stems, and appear after flowering. Fall color ranges from green to straw yellow. Fruits are insignificant, greenish dry capsules.

The smallest and daintiest of the species, and suitable for small gardens, is Corylopsis pauciflora, buttercup winter hazel. Visitors to the garden will see one on their left, just past the entrance, at the near corner of the courtyard garden outside the Tateuchi Community Room (Area B). Additional specimens are in Areas D (along the main east side path) and ZZW. Buttercup winter hazel is a graceful small shrub, usually under 6 feet tall, with horizontal branching. The fragrant, luminous yellow flowers appear before the leaves, and are held in short nodding spikes along the branches. The flower spikes are shorter than those of the other species, but the individual blooms are larger, more open, and to many observers, more attractive.

Intermediate in height is Corylopsis spicata (spike winter hazel), which matures at about 10 feet tall, spreading wider. Its fragrant flowers are golden-yellow, in drooping clusters up to 2 inches long, and its leaves emerges with purple tones, changing to bluish-green. With its faster growth rate, it develops a mass of crooked, flexible branches at maturity, and may benefit from judicious thinning cuts. This plant became very popular during the Edo period ((1603 – 1867), and remains popular today. It’s planted in the garden in Areas Y and Z.

Tallest, and most cold hardy, is Corylopsis glabrescens (fragrant winter hazel). With a mature height of about 18 feet, it can be grown as a small tree. Its fragrant flowers are pale yellow, in drooping clusters slightly shorter than those of C. spicata. It sometimes develops golden fall color. A small specimen is planted in Area Y, across from the Teahouse.

Several species of Corylopsis are also planted in the Washington Park Arboretum, in the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden.

I love the subtle beauty and fragrance of these elegant shrubs, harbingers of spring. Their flowers are like a ray of winter sun, and welcome us back to the Japanese Garden when it re-opens each year in March.

Corinne Kennedy is a trained guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden's blog.