Let me be clear from the start—I know almost nothing about plants. The little I do know comes from spotty observation, but my knowledge is paper-thin. Those who know me would laugh at any of my attempts to sound scholarly on botany. My comments here have less authority than that of the average visitor to Longwood Gardens.
Witch hazels have become my favorite tree—or shrub—in Longwood Gardens. (I thought witch hazel was an old-fashioned liquid antiseptic that my grandfather used.) As a tree, they are small, but branch out close to the ground, like a shrub. Even Wikipedia doesn’t know which to call them. But their characteristic is how early they bloom. They are the first sign of spring that I notice. One year, 2014, I noticed the buds starting to open on the first days of January, and within weeks were in full bloom while everything else was covered in snow. The blossoms are feathery and only about 1-inch wide, but the tree (or shrub) is covered with them. The bloom-time depends on the weather, and sometimes is not until March. Even then, it is well ahead of anything else.
I have no idea what this year will bring, but this will alert you early of what to look for.
Longwood has two varieties: one with bright orange blossoms and another with bright yellow blossoms. They have about 10 of them. Go straight ahead from the entrance, and they are on your right and left as the path joins the other path at right angles that connects the Peirce–du Pont House with the Main Conservatory. (I call it “du Pont Avenue,” but I am the only one. Don’t ask about it; no one else will understand. It really connects the House to “5 points” an intersection of 5 paths close to the fountain area and the Main Conservatory entrance. It is at the foot of the steps leading up to the Terrace cafeteria/dining room. ) Ahead will be the banks of the hill with the Terrace dining areas on top with more witch hazel on the banks. Go in midwinter and you cannot miss their bright colors. They were undoubtedly planted there for just that reason: to provide a burst of cheery color visible to visitors as they come through the entrance tunnel in the gloom of winter.
Works for me.
Note 11/24/17: I recently found this photo I took of a bonsai witch hazel at Longwood Gardens in full bloom. Bonsai trees are kept artificially dwarfed, but the leaves, blossoms, and fruit remain their normal size, so this photo shows the blossoms exceptionally well. Trees to be trained as bonsai are usually selected as varieties having naturally small leaves and blossoms.