AS other trees lose their autumn colour, witch hazels conjure up a colourful show

‘DOUBLE, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble...'

The witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) - so named because of its similar appearance to the hazel tree - is known for its spectacular display of fiery autumn colour, with unusual flowers which shine out from the late winter to mid-spring months, each tree more spectacular than the last, but which hazel relative is the best?

Hamamelis, known commonly as witch hazel, is the first group of shrubs in the witch hazel family to flower, putting on a show from late winter to early spring. Native to Eastern Asia and North America, these small trees begin to flower when most other deciduous trees are losing their autumn colour. Hamamelis have tough leathery leaves which in early autumn transform to provide excellent colour, ranging from yellow to orange and crimson. Its flowers are unusual: they are crimped, curled, twisted and spidery in appearance and are often heavily scented; they come in a range of colours.

The best yellow flowering cultivar is arguably Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida', the most popular and widely planted of hybrid witch hazels. H. ‘Diane’ claims to be the largest and best red flowering variety. H. 'Jelena' flowers copper orange. H. ‘Robert’ is more unusual, having an attractive vase-shaped habit with strikingly-scented coppery orange-red flowers.

Witch hazels need an open and sunny position to perform at their best, avoiding exposed and windy positions. They prefer free-draining soils conditions.

Loropetalum chinense is commonly known as the Chinese fringe flower. Unlike its close relative Hamamelis, it is evergreen. Loropetalum flowers from February until late March and has an abundance of fragrant white or yellowish-white flowers, borne in clusters at the end of short branches, similar in shape to witch hazel flowers. It has small, overlapping heart-shaped, deep olive leaves. Where the straight species has white flowers and green leaves, cultivars such as 'Fire Dance' have deep plum-pink new foliage which contrasts well with its flowers. Loropetalum chinense is an ideal plant for a small garden, only reaching 3-4ft in cultivation. It is slow growing and is one of the most tender of the Hamamelis family that we can grow in the UK, so not the best choice for northern climes.

Corylopsis pauciflora, delightfully known as the buttercup witch hazel, is one of the largest genus in the Hamamelis family, and arguably one of the best spring flowering shrubs around. Native to the Eastern Himalaya, China and Japan, it is able to tolerate semi-shaded conditions. In mid-spring this deciduous shrub illuminates shaded areas with its elegant, short pendant racemes of fragrant yellow flowers which dangle gracefully on thin stems. Its small green leaves follow quickly after flowering and have a pinkish tint when young, turning bronze in autumn. C. sinensis in contrast has long, drooping racemes to 8cm, and boasts fragrant lemon-yellow flowers followed by attractive leaves with blue-tinged undersides. More decorative still is Corylopsis sinensis var. calvescens f. veitchian: its fragrant, pale yellow flowers are perfectly offset by brick-red anthers. Corylopsis has a slow rate of growth and thrives on acid or neutral soils. It will tolerate chalk, providing soil is 60cm depth or more, and looks great planted in a partially-shady shrub border or woodland edge.

Fothergilla, commonly known as witch alders, are native to woodland and swamps in the Allegheny Mountains of the South Eastern United States. These small-to-medium sized tidy deciduous shrubs are conspicuous in mid spring with their white bottlebrush-like flower spikes emerging from rounded blue green foliage, with striking autumn foliage which turns yellow, orange and red. F. major and F. gardenia hold the RHS Award of Garden Merit and are disease resistant. They prefer full sun but tolerate shade well and need well-drained, rich, acidic soil. This shrub would make an ideal addition to the front of a woodland border.