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Celebrating Witch Hazels

Celebrating Witch Hazels

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New York City may be the urban jungle, but no one ever expects it to be a place of botanical wonder. Nestled in the hustle and bustle of midtown Manhattan, Madison Square Park is an urban oasis. This 6.2-acre free public park welcomes 60,000 visitors a day. Locals and visitors from all over the world enjoy the shade of the established tree canopy and bask in the beauty of thousands of shrubs and perennials.

The small but mighty park has played a vital role in New York City’s history as a special gathering place for parades for veterans and suffragettes, the fundraising campaign for the Statue of Liberty, America’s first public Christmas tree lighting, and the birth of baseball. Building on this legacy, can it be a place that helps cure plant blindness and connect individuals to the natural world?

In 2016, the Madison Square Park Conservancy committed to establishing five signature plant collections that would provide seasonal interest and encourage visitors to use the gardens as a place of respite throughout the year. Each season you can find something to catch your eye, but fall into late winter is a truly special time in the park for plant lovers. The bright colors and invigorating scent of the Hamamelis spp. collection attract people into the park even during the coldest months of the year. The collection is extensive for the garden’s size, comprising five species and seventy cultivars.

The Madison Square Park Conservancy is proud to join the Plant Collections Network in introducing visitors to individual taxa, developing accessible horticulture, and creating cultural connections to plants. The goal of the collection is to develop an urban reference garden for Hamamelis spp. with a focus on hybrid cultivars. Hamamelis spp. are well-loved urban garden specimens in cold climates. Their shrubby habit screens traffic and provides shelter for birds. Hamamelis spp. are shade tolerant, allowing specimens to thrive in an urban jungle of buildings and dense tree canopies. Every year it’s a wonder to see commuters and tourists stumble across a blooming Hamamelis sp. and remark on its beauty and fragrance, even in the cold month of February.

Among these specimens, you can find Hamamelis virginiana, native to New York City. This witch hazel is the earliest to flower and its ecological importance is far-reaching. Sixty-eight varieties of local caterpillars depend on this species for food. It also supports thirteen families of birds who use it for both shelter and food. The late-season flowers provide a vital source of nectar that attracts pollinators.

By bringing attention to these beautiful native specimens that can help rewild and restore ecosystems in urban areas, we educate the public. The impacts of the collection have grown beyond the confines of the garden. In 2019, artist Nancy Blum memorialized this collection with Roaming Underfoot, a suite of large-scale botanically-themed glass mosaic murals designed for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Art and Design Program. This permanent installation, located in the historic 28th Street Station for the 6 train, celebrates Hamamelis and the other living collections in Madison Square Park. Over 20,000 people view this installation each week.

Madison Square Park has always welcomed diverse communities and ideas. It is also where New Yorkers and visitors come to have fun. The Conservancy hosts interpretive public programming to celebrate its plant collections’ diversity and to create memorable moments around people and plants. With a comprehensive collection of Hamamelis spp., the Conservancy is able to showcase a wide variety of specimens and spark curiosity in the natural world. Through garden walks, parkgoers are encouraged to ask questions and discover the diversity within the collection.

Click here to read the feature article in Public Garden Magazine.

To learn more about Madison Square Park Conservancy’s Hamamelis Collection click here. You can also take a tour and explore the collection on your own with our guide.

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