Witch Hazel Casts a Spell
Witch hazel is both a beautiful fall shrub and a helpful natural remedy for everything from sunburns to arthritis.Ben Schonewille/Shutterstock
Witch hazel is a shrub that blooms in late October or November and can make for a valuable landscaping plant or helpful home remedy.
What Is Witch Hazel?
For much of the year, American witch hazel, or winterbloom, is a shrub that grows mostly unnoticed along shaded stream banks and in damp woods from Georgia to southern Canada. Its light gray bark and rounded green leaves blend in well with its surroundings. Even when the leaves turn a dazzling clear yellow in the fall, their beauty is often lost in the colorful tangle of other plants.
Then witch hazel flowers—not in the spring, but in late October or November, or even early December. The fragrant, tasseled yellow blossoms often appear against a background of early snow. As the shrub blooms, its previous year’s fruit matures. The seed capsules explode with an audible pop, shooting their two hard, shiny black seeds several yards from the parent plant.
The plant’s name does not refer to witchcraft, but comes from the Middle English word wych or wyche, meaning pliant or flexible. The “hazel” in the name comes from the plant’s similarity to the common hazelnut.
Native Americans used the plant’s springy wood to make bows. They also valued the shrub for its medicinal qualities, using the astringent leaves and bark to control bleeding and take the sting out of insect bites and drinking the tea as a mild sedative.
If for no other reason than its time of bloom, witch hazel is a valuable landscaping plant—but choose its site carefully, because it may grow 25 feet tall and just as wide. Being shade tolerant, witch hazel is often used for naturalizing wooded areas, but it may be grown in full sun and actually develops brighter fall foliage when planted in the open. Its extreme cold hardiness and resistance to insects and disease make witch hazel a good choice for an easy-care planting. Learn more about shrubs for fall landscaping.
Witch Hazel as a Natural Remedy
The witch hazel that we find in the medicine cabinet today is made by distilling the bark of twigs and roots with alcohol to create a soothing lotion that reduces swelling and relieves aching joints. More than a million gallons of witch hazel are sold each year in the United States, making it one of the most popular natural remedies. Find out more about using witch hazel as a natural remedy.