Add Witch Hazel to Your Garden for Healing and Winter Interest!
December 6, 2023
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Witch hazel’s yellow-to-orange-red flowers add a slash of color to drab winter landscapes. Learn more about this wonderfully hardy, fragrant plant with therapeutic qualities. It tells us that spring is around the corner!
About Witch Hazel
The witch hazel plant, also called winterbloom, is a large native flowering shrub or small tree with dazzling clear yellow flowers that bloom in late fall or winter (depending on the variety)—adding color and fragrance during a time when much of Earth is dormant.
For much of the year, witch hazel is a shrub that grows mostly unnoticed along shaded stream banks and in damp woods from Georgia to southern Canada. Its light gray bark and rounded green leaves blend in well with its surroundings. But when witch hazel blossoms, the fragrant, tasseled yellow blossoms often appear against a background of early snow.
The botanical name, Hamamelis, translates to “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that the fruit and flowers simultaneously occur on the same plant. This is a very unique feature of native North American trees. As the shrub blooms, its previous year’s fruit matures. The seed capsules explode with an audible pop, shooting their two hard, shiny black seeds several yards from the parent plant.
Witch hazel not only pops with color, but also blooms with a wonderfully spicy fragrance. They’re very hardy and are not prone to a lot of diseases.
Why Is it Called Witch Hazel?
The plant’s name does not refer to witchcraft, but comes from the Middle English word wych or wyche, meaning pliant or flexible, which refers to the plant’s very flexible branches. The “hazel” in the name comes from the plant’s similarity to the common hazelnut.
Planting Witch Hazel in the Garden
If for no other reason than its time of winter bloom, witch hazel is a valuable landscaping plant—but it’s also attractive in the spring and summer with its dark green leaves and graceful, spreading vase shape. Often, it’s used as a large border shrub, thriving under the canopy of larger trees. Plants are typically upright-spreading and rather loosely branched. The somewhat zigzagging branches offer interesting forms, and their upright nature allows under-planting with bulbs or small perennials.
There are a couple of popular species native to North America (H. virginiana, H. vernalis) and non-natives from Asia.
The common witch hazel (H. virginiana) is noted for its good fall color, which is usually bright yellow, blooming from October to December.
The vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) is similar to the common witch hazel except that its features are generally smaller. The most significant difference between these native species is flowering time, which is usually late winter/early spring.
Choose its planting site carefully, because common witch hazel (H. virginiana) can grow 25 feet tall and just as wide. Vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) is generally of smaller stature, maturing at a height of 6 to 10 feet. Witch hazels can be kept smaller with pruning once they are finished blooming. However, they really do best in large planting areas for average growth. With their shallow, slow-growing root systems, you should have plenty of room.
Being shade tolerant, witch hazel is often used for naturalizing wooded areas. However, these plants perform best in full sun (or, filtered shade in hot zones) and develop brighter fall foliage when planted in the open.
They prefer moist, well-amended, well-drained soil and regular water, and are tolerant of both acid or alkaline conditions. Its extreme cold hardiness and resistance to insects and disease make witch hazel a good choice for an easy-care planting. They are moderately resistant to drought once established.
Witch Hazel doesn’t require pruning. Due to their spreading growth habit, however, they may need to be occasionally pruned to maintain an upright form, or to allow for clearance beneath the canopy. The common witch hazel (H. virginiana) is especially prone to suckering as it colonizes, and these suckers should be removed to maintain a tidy appearance if so desired.
Native Americans used the plant’s springy wood to make bows. The shrub is also valued for its medicinal qualities: the astringent leaves and bark were used to control bleeding and take the sting out of insect bites. A tea could also be made from witch hazel, working as a mild sedative.
Today, witch hazel is still used as an astringent for treating skin inflammations and irritations; the plant contains tannins that help decrease swelling and fight bacteria. In fact, it is one of the very few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The witch hazel that we find in the medicine cabinet today is made by distilling the bark of twigs and roots with alcohol, which creates a soothing lotion that reduces swelling and relieves aching joints. More than a million gallons of witch hazel are sold yearly in the United States, making it one of the most popular natural remedies.