Witch Hazel is a hardy and resilient shrub that is fragrant all winter. Certain varieties of Witch Hazel grace your garden with late winter blooms that herald the imminent arrival of spring.
As a multi-faceted shrub, Witch Hazel is a great addition to every garden providing:
Late winter flowers when little else is in bloom;
Nice foliage and small summer fruit;
Autumn color (unique yellow, gold, orange or red flowers) and seeds for wildlife; and
A winter display of angular, sculptural branches. (Bring a few into the house for a fragrant, striking centerpiece.)
Witch hazel is a wonderful, flowering, fragrant, native addition to your garden that can be planted in spring or fall. Although not deer resistant, browsing won't harm the plant and will contribute to lusher foliage. It is seldom bothered by pests or diseases.
Witch Hazel is naturally found thriving along the shady edges of woodlands. In your yard, it is ideally suited to the north side of your home where it is protected from the full strength of the summer sun.
A single witch hazel makes a lovely focal point, but a planting of 3 different witch hazel varieties will bring out the subtly different characteristics of each. Plant witch hazel areas that are highly visible, like near a walkway, entrance, porch, deck, or where it can be seen through windows.
Witch hazel prefers moist, well-drained soil, but can adapt to a range of soil conditions. Grow in full sun to partial shade and doesn't need special food or fertilizer. They may be sensitive to drought, especially the first few years, so water during the driest parts of June and July.
The good witch
Throughout history, Witch Hazel has been used many ways by many peoples. Native American uses of Witch Hazel varied by tribe: The Osage people used the bark was to treat skin sores and tumors. The Potawatomi placed the twigs on the hot rocks in a sweat lodge to bathe and soothe sore muscles with the steam. The Menomini boiled the twigs in water, then rubbed the solution on their muscles to keep them limber. The Iroquois people used witch hazel in a strong tea for dysentery, to treat colds and cough, as an astringent and blood purifier among others. The Mohegans used a decoction of the leaves and twigs to treat cuts, bruises, and insect bites.
Early settler's used witch hazel's forked branches for dousing (that's how we located the well on our property with the help of a douser).
Witch hazel astringent can still be found in pharmacies and is a natural way to remove makeup, the sting from sunburn, bug bites and find relief from poison ivy.
America's witch hazel industry is predominately located in nearby Connecticut whose forests supply much of the autumn harvest. Connecticut land owners contract with Witch hazel manufacturers. Since the extract is taken from the leaves, twigs and bark, the shrubs are trimmed to the ground (a new crop is ready for harvest within a few years). Chipped on-site, the witch hazel is then brought to the factories to endure a lengthy 36-hour distillation, is then re-heated, condensed and filtered, before being preserved with alcohol.
Pond's Extract, made with witch hazel was one of the first commercial skin care products in America.
Which Witch, Hazel?
There are four main species of witch hazel and one hybrid (H. x intermedia), and almost 100 named varieties. The two species native to North America are common witch hazel (H. virginiana, Zone 4), which blooms in late fall, and vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis, Zone 5), which blooms in early spring. The flowers of some Asiatic hybrids are less fragrant than American witchhazel.
Which Way to Prune Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel shrubs need only to be relieved of deadwood and any suckers that form at its base. Poorly placed branches can also be removed to guide and shape its growth. Many varieties boast wonderfully fragrant flowers making for great midwinter bouquets. The best time to prune a witch hazel is in winter while it's blooming or shortly thereafter.
If you like to fiddle with plants, Witch Hazel can be trained into a sculptural form via espalier (trellis). Espaliered plants are a clever way to add height to a narrow space by pruning and training a fruit tree or shrub to an aesthetically pleasing mostly 2D form. Great for small spaces, espaliers save space, reduce disease, and produce healthier, stronger plants. (Espaliered fruit trees produce more fruit since they are pruned and trained concentrating all of the plants energy to the production of fruit-bearing wood.)
As a multi-faceted shrub, Witch Hazel is a great addition to every garden: flowering when little else is in bloom, producing small summer fruit, adding autumn color, providing seeds, and displaying their sculptural branches during winter months.
NOTE: Witch hazel's summer fruits mature into edible autumn seeds. Though their foliage is similar to true hazels (genus Corylus), witch hazel's seeds are not Hazelnuts.
For over 20 years I have been sharing my passion for plants and gardening by operating a retail garden center and offering some of my favorite plant varieties to everyone who happens to stop by. I have enjoyed meeting many different people over the years and there are many that I now consider dear friends.