Witch Hazel Care
Add this subtle beauty to your list of must-have landscape shrubs.
‘Arnold Promise’ Witch Hazel
Give late winter and early spring a boost of bold color with the bright yellow blooms of witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). This variety, ‘Arnold Promise,’ delivers intense fragrance in its heavy crop of cold-weather blossoms. Native to North America, witch hazel thrives in moist, well-drained soil that’s slightly acidic. Use this shrub in a woodland garden or as an informal hedge. Pair it with evergreens to help winter blooms stand out. This shrub is deer and rabbit resistant. Plants grow 12 to 15 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 5-8. Good to know: Witch hazel readily suckers, spreading slowly to form a thicket. Remove suckers as soon as they appear to keep the plant in bounds.
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.
What Is Witch Hazel?
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 USDA Zones 3-8.
A History of Witch Hazel
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.
How to Plant and Grow Witch Hazel
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.
How to Care for Witch Hazel
According to Egan Davis of the Van Dussen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, BC, witch hazel can flower at a time of the year when nothing else is blooming – anytime from December up until March, depending on what kind of season you have. Even better, they don’t require special feeding or fertilizer and they’ll grow in almost any soil.
Pruning Witch Hazel
Although witch hazel is fairly low maintenance overall, the trees require regular pruning in order to maintain their horizontal growth habit, says Egan. "When you are pruning them, it’s important that when you make your cut, you keep in mind that the line you leave is long and straight."
It’s also a good idea to keep suckers – nonflowering twigs coming from the root stock – in check. Summer is the best time to remove suckers, which are often a different color from the main shrub. Cut suckers close to the ground so that stubs left behind won’t produce new suckers.
Transplanting Witch Hazel
Witch hazel can grow quite large so try to site it in a space where it will have plenty of room. If you need to transplant, Egan recommends following these steps:
- First clear any leaf debris from around the base of the tree and cut around the root ball with a spade. "What I want is for the root ball to be completely separated form the ground before I go in and lift it." Eventually the tree will topple.
- Bundle the root ball with burlap; this will keep the ball stable and secure for the move.
- Use a shovel placed under the root ball to pull the tree to its new location. Place the witch hazel tree, with the burlap still in place, into the new planting hole. "You could actually damage the root ball if you remove the burlap, so don’t worry about that," says Egan.
- When situating the tree, make sure the root ball is slightly above the surrounding surface grade of the soil and not buried too deep. For a little added winter protection, cover the base with leaf mulch, and you’re done.
American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Yellow flowers with ribbon-like petals appear on plants in late fall about the time that leaves drop, providing an important late-season pollen source for insects. Plant form is a shrub to small tree. In its native setting, witch hazel favors woodland settings with well-drained, acidic soil, but tolerates heavy clay soil. Plants form suckers and will spread to form a shrubby colony. Remove suckers to keep plant spread in check. Witch hazel is hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
Mulching Witch Hazel
Provide a three-inch layer of mulch to hedge against summer drought stress.