This time of year we're all starved for color. Maybe a few snowdrops, crocus and hellebores are blooming, but we need more! One shrub to the rescue is an unusual one because it blooms either now or late fall, depending on the species, with colorful, spider-like blossoms. It's the witch hazel.
You probably are familiar with the medicinal qualities of witch hazel. The bark and wood from the native Hamamelis virginiana is used to make a variety of health care products such as after-shave lotion, itch and diaper rash remedies, sunburn lotion, and wound disinfectant. It's hardy to zone 3, blooms in late fall and grows 10 to 20 feet tall and wide. There are newer varieties of this species that grow more compact, such as 'Little Suzie' and 'Harvest Moon'.
For color right now, try the Hamamelis vernalis varieties such as 'Sandra' and 'Lobart's Weeping'. These are hardy to zone 4, have smaller flowers but with a strong fragrance. They're more tolerant of clay soils than the autumn blooming types.
There are also some Chinese and Japanese hybrids of Hamamelis x intermedia, such as 'Jelena'. These are a little less hardy but still grow well in Connecticut. They have great fall foliage color, too.
Witch hazel are care free shrubs that can have an upright, spreading or weeping shape depending on the variety. They grow well in full sun or part shade, in well-drained soil and have few pests, although deer seem to like munching on ours occasionally. Many sucker freely to form a nice informal hedge. Add a few to your landscape mixed with hollies, viburnums and dogwoods.