Witch hazels don’t run with the pack. Larger than most shrubs, they are usually considered trees - if somewhat small and shrubby trees. Their blossoms are not dazzling, but are very welcome since they flower when little else is in bloom.
Witch hazels are well known yet not familiar to many gardeners. The plant is used as a common herbal remedy and has been for centuries. Some species are native and have been in the American landscape as long as it has been colonized. And yet until recently most homeowners and many landscape professionals would have been hard put to identify a witch hazel, much less to recognize a particular species or cultivar.
The common name “witch hazel” does not refer to any magical or medicinal qualities of the plant. It was derived from the Old English word “wych” meaning “to bend or flex,” reportedly because of their similarity to small coppiced trees common in English gardens.
The botanical latin name, Hamamelis, comes from a Greek word said to refer to witch hazel’s resemblance to apple trees. Other common names include spotted alder, snapping hazel or hazelnut and winterbloom. The “snapping” designation refers to the seed pods of common witch hazel, which pop or snap open when ripe, catapulting the seeds to a distance of several yards.
In addition to distinctive, fragrant flowers and attractive fall foliage, witch hazel is also valued for its architectural form and adaptability to sun or shade, wet conditions and clay soils. Flowering time is one of the most valuable features of witch hazel, with some species blooming in late fall and others in late winter to early spring, blooming even longer in cold weather.
Common witch hazel is native to the eastern United States and Canada, and the bark, twigs and leaves were used by Native Americans and colonials in medicinal teas and topical applications. Witch hazel is still used today in a variety of forms, particularly as a treatment for inflamed skin, insect bites and other minor wounds.
Common witch hazel is hardy to zone 4, possibly to zone 3, where it performs best in full sun. This species is a fall-blooming hazel with yellow flowers and yellow fall foliage. This is a good plant for a naturalized area where it can be given room to grow, since it may reach up to 30 feet tall and nearly as wide.
Although vernal witch hazel is a southern native, it is also very cold hardy and is tolerant of alkaline soils. Smaller than common witch hazel, it may reach up to 15 feet high and at least as wide. Although it is a streamside plant, it is also adaptable to dry soils. This species blooms in late winter -- it is considered one of the earliest spring bloomers. This large shrub is often planted in colonies, where it will sucker and spread.
The most famous cultivar of this species is ‘Sandra’, featuring bright yellow flowers and foliage that is colorful in both spring and fall. Other cultivars include ‘Carnea’ and ‘Christmas Cheer’. While the flowers of some witch hazel species are described as “fragrant,” those of H. vernalis are usually termed “pungent.”
Chinese witch hazel is one of the first hazels to bloom, as early as late January. It is not as hardy as the other witch hazels, only to about zone 5. The form of this species, as well as the shape of its leaves, is more rounded than other hazels. The yellow flowers are exceptionally fragrant and the fall color ranges from yellow to yellow-orange. Cultivars include the yellow-flowering, yellow fall foliage ‘Early Bright’ and ‘Princeton Gold’. ‘Gold Edge’ has foliage variegated with cream, ‘Imperialis’ has large, pale yellow flowers and ‘’Wisley Supreme’ is a tender but exceptionally long-blooming cultivar.
Japanese witch hazel is rarely found in American landscapes, although it is a popular plant in European gardens. The delicate flowers are less abundant, less fragrant and less noticeable than those of other hazels, blooming in early spring. The strongly horizontal branching is very attractive and architecturally interesting, but while the ultimate 15 foot height is manageable, the very wide-growing habit can make it a difficult plant to use in average sized landscapes. The fall color is the best of all the witch hazels.
Witch hazels have come to the forefront in recent years because of the development of improved cultivars with distinctive flower color, persistent flowers and excellent fall foliage. The spidery flowers of witch hazel are interesting but subtle in the straight species, but they stand out in cultivars like Hamamelis X intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’, which has golden yellow fragrant flowers, H. X intermedia ‘Diane’ which has deep red flowers, H. X intermedia ‘Ruby Glow’, which has bronze-red flowers and is considered one of the hardiest hybrids, and H. X intermedia ‘Jelena’ which has fragrant, coppery red flowers that appear to be tipped in yellow.
These shrubby hybrid witch hazels are a focal point of the winter landscape, providing a rare touch of color when they flower from January to March. Hybrid witch hazels are adaptable to acid and alkaline soils. While they can be used in shady settings, to achieve the best flowering they should be planted in full sun.
Depending on the cultivar, the hybrid witch hazels may grow from ten to twenty feet tall. ‘Pallida’, recipient of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal, is a somewhat tender smaller form with very fragrant yellow flowers; it performs best in well-drained acidic soil. New, improved hybrids and cultivars are being introduced all the time - be sure to check them out!
One word of caution: while some witch hazels are fragrant, not everyone agrees that the fragrance is pleasant.
Do you use witch hazel for medicinal purposes? What are your favorite witch hazels?