(Updated February 2019)
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 woodlands, stream banks and many a garden. For me, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of witch hazel’s shaggy yellow flowers to signal spring is finally on its way.
ABOUT WITCH HAZEL
Witch hazel is native to both North America and Asia. The genus is composed of four main species, each with its own defining characteristics.
In North America, there are two native species
Hamamelis virginiana, or ‘common witch hazel,’ blooms in the fall. It grows in the eastern part of the United States from Nova Scotia to central Florida and as far west as Texas. Hamamelis vernalis, or ‘Ozark witch hazel’, blooms in the late winter. It grows in the central part of the country in the Ozark Mountains areas of Missouri and Arkansas.
In Asia, the two main species are Hamamelis japonica, (native to Japan), and Hamamelis mollis, (native to China.)
More recently, a cross between the Japanese and Chinese species has produced the hybrid Hamamelis 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.
Spidery flowers and brilliant fall foliage
There’s so much to love about this cheerful plant. Most species top out at about 15 to 25 feet; a perfect addition to the back of the perennial border or tucked into a 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.
Witch hazel seed pods
Witch hazel leaves have brilliant fall color
But of all these admirable qualities, the ‘wow factor’ for me lies in witch hazel’s delicate, spidery flowers that, depending on the species, appear anytime from October to March. Ribbon-like in appearance, the blooms spring from bare branches in clusters of bright yellow or deep red (and occasionally burnt orange.) The crumpled-up petals unfold gradually over time and can last up to a month.
In northern Delaware where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of witch hazels flanking 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 dazzling petals. There was a bright yellow variety and a burgundy one, and when the shrubs finally reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a rich tapestry of late winter color.
THE 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 x intermedia
Hamamelis virginiana is a fall-blooming species. Flowering usually begins in 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.’
CARING FOR WITCH HAZEL
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 its bark and leaves by Thomas Newton Dickinson.
For more information about Hamamelis and a comparison of 36 cultivars of the main Hamamelis species, check out Chicago Botanic Garden’s “Which Witch Hazel Should Be In Your Yard.”