Witch Hazel Care
Add this subtle beauty to your list of must-have landscape shrubs.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) may be more familiar in the form of a medicinal extract than in its natural woody form. Not a showy standout in any season, witch hazel is suitable for softening the landscape. It adds pleasant architecture, and rewards gardeners with good fall color and fragrant, if not riotous flowers.
Common witch hazel is a deciduous small tree or large shrub reaching up to thirty feet tall and twenty-five feet wide. The crooked spreading branches form an irregular, rounded open crown. The medium green leaves turn yellow in fall. Its fragrant yellow flowers open in fall, and may come to full bloom while the leaves are still on the plant or after they have fallen. Witch hazel is grown as a specimen or shrub border plant for its beautiful fall color and fragrant blooms. It is hardy in zones 3-8.
Witch hazel is native to eastern North America from Canada’s maritime provinces to northern Florida, west to southeastern Minnesota and eastern Texas. It is absent from the highest elevations in the Appalachians. It often grows as an understory tree along forest streams.
An interesting theory exists on how witch hazel got its name. There is a resemblance that it shares with the hazels of Europe, both in leaf and, to a lesser degree fruit. An early use that settlers found for this plant was to help find sources of water, a process called “water witching.” A forked branch was used, one that grew with the forks pointing north and south (having had equally felt the pull of the sunlight from dawn until dusk). The forks were held in the hands, the stem pointing forward. When a water source was discovered, it pulled down the stem end toward the earth, indicating where to dig. Whether the name or the activity came first it is difficult to say, as the European hazel provided a similar service.
Witch hazel extract is popular around the world for use in treating a wide range of skin and vein conditions. The tannins in the plant make it quite astringent. It is touted for its anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts are generally a steam distillation of the essential oil. Some manufacturers infuse alcohol with it. Witch hazel tea is also popular.
Plant container grown or balled in burlap stock in full sun for best overall shape. In hot regions, a bit of afternoon shade is beneficial. Soil should remain consistently moist.
Provide a three-inch layer of mulch to hedge against summer drought stress. Natural shape is usually the most desirable, lightly prune in late spring if needed.