Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, is perhaps best known for its therapeutic properties, but it’s also a star of the late winter garden. And right now in eastern North America, the shrub’s sweet citrusy-like scent is floating across native woodlands, stream banks and many a garden. For me, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of witch hazel’s shaggy yellow flowers on bare winter branches to signal that spring is finally on its way.
Witch hazel is a member of Hamamelidaceae, a family of flowering plants native to both North America and Asia. The famous botanist Carl Linnaeus gave witch hazel its Latin name. He named it Hamamelis, after hama, meaning “at the same time” and melis, meaning “melon or apple,” upon observing that the shrubby plant often produced flowers, fruit and leaves simultaneously.
The genus Hamamelis is composed of four main species, each with its own defining characteristics. In North America, the native species are H. virginiana and H. vernalis. The fall blooming H. virginiana, or ‘common witch hazel,’ grows in the eastern part of the United States from Nova Scotia to central Florida and as far west as Texas. The late-winter flowering H. vernalis, or ‘Ozark witch hazel’, grows in the central part of the country in the Ozark Mountains areas of Missouri and Arkansas.
In Asia, the two main species are H. japonica, (native to Japan), and H. mollis, (native to China.) More recently, a cross between the Japanese and Chinese species has produced the hybrid H. x intermedia, a cultivar that is gaining popularity for its more manageable size and desirable late winter/early spring flowering. This is the variety you will often find for sale at your local nursery and the one I am enjoying now in my garden.
Spider-like flowers and brilliant-colored leaves
There’s so much to love about this cheerful plant, which develops over time into a large shrub or small tree. Most species top out at about 15 to 25 feet; a perfect addition to the back of the perennial border or tucked into that bare corner in the garden. Some varieties grow in a loose, vase-like form, while others are more rounded and compact. The smooth oval leaves turn brilliant shades of red or yellow in the fall and when the brown fruits rupture, they fling a single glossy black seed as far as 30 feet into the distance.
But of all these admirable characteristics, the ‘wow factor’ for me lies in witch hazel’s stunning, spidery flowers that, depending on the species, can appear anytime from October to March. Ribbon-like in appearance, the blooms erupt on bare branches in clusters of bright yellow or deep red (and occasionally burnt orange.) The crinkled up petals develop slowly over time and can last for up to a month.
In northern Delaware where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of witch hazels that flanked a corner of the glass visitor’s pavilion at Winterthur Museum and Gardens. Beginning in late February, the blossoms would start to swell, gradually revealing slivers of the first brilliant petals. There was a bright yellow variety and a deep red one, and when they finally achieved full bloom, their zigzag branches together wove a brilliant tapestry of late winter color.
Best cultivars for your garden
The diversity and beauty of the many cultivars, which to date number around 100, give Hamamelis all season appeal. Here’s a rundown of the main species and some of their cultivars.
Hamamelis x intermedia is a hybrid between H. japonica and H. mollis. Loosely branched and medium sized, it grows to about 12 feet tall and wide. Its oval leaves turn yellow in fall. Yellow, red or orange flowers with twisted petals appear on bare stems ahead of spring foliage. Popular cultivars include: ‘Arnold’s Promise,’ ‘Diane,’ ‘Jelena,’ and ‘Pallida.
Hamamelis virginiana is a fall-blooming species. Flowering begins in mid-fall around October and continues until late fall when the leaves turn golden yellow. The blooms are typically bright yellow, although some cultivars have reddish flowers. This is the species grown and harvested for the extract of its bark and roots used to treat swelling and inflammation. Popular cultivars include ‘Little Suzie’ and ‘Harvest Moon.’
Hamamelis vernalis, also known as spring-blooming witch hazel, is an intensely fragrant shrub with multiple crooked stems and an irregular open crown. Flowers appear in late winter to early spring and range from yellow to dark red in color. The petals roll up on cold days. In the wild, you’ll most often find this species growing on stream banks or in wetland areas. Popular cultivars include ‘Autumn Embers,’ ‘Lombart’s Weeping’ and ‘Sandra.’
Hamamelis japonica is native to the mountainsides of Japan and can’t handle extremes in cold weather. Its flowers are similar to H. vernalis, but are larger. In Japan, the shrub is also known as ‘mansaku’ or ‘earliest flowering’ and its pale yellow, red and purple blooms are prized in traditional tea ceremonies. It blooms February through March.
Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel) is considered to be the most fragrant of all the witch hazels. Its elongated petals are larger than those of other species and have less of a twist. Rich yellow flowers appear on bare stems from December to March. Outstanding cultivars include ‘Goldcrest,’ ‘Crimson Gold’ and ‘Superba.’
Witch hazels need full sun for good flowering although they will live in dappled shade. They prefer well-drained, loamy, acidic soil. Most species need a chilling period of at least 2 months with temperatures below 45 degrees to ensure they will flower. Prune after flowering but before summer to allow next year’s buds to set.
The extract from witch hazel leaves and bark can be used externally to treat swelling and inflammation caused by skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. It can also be used to treat insect bites and poison ivy. Witch hazel’s therapeutic properties gained widespread acceptance in the United States following the first commercial introduction in 1866 of an astringent made from the bark and leaves of the plant by Thomas Newton Dickinson.
For more information about Hamamelis and the Witch Hazel Trials, a comparison of 36 cultivars of the main Hamamelis species, check out Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Which Witch Hazel Should Be In Your Yard.”