What is Witch Hazel?

Witch Hazel in the Garden and for Healing

By George Lohmiller
February 14, 2020
Witch Hazel
Pixabay

Our witch hazel started blooming in February. Its yellow to orange-red flowers add a slash of color to drab winter landscapes. Learn more about this wonderfully hardy, fragrant plant—which also has therapeutic qualities. It tells us that spring is around the corner!

What is Witch Hazel?

Witch hazel is a genus of flowering plants in the family Hamamelidaceae.

For much of the year, 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.

Witch hazel blossoms not in the spring or summer when most flowers bloom! Rather, most species bloom from January to March. The fragrant, tasseled yellow blossoms often appear against a background of early snow. Other types of witch hazel flower in late fall or even December. 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.

Witch hazel not only pops with color, but also has blooms with a wonderfully spicy fragrance. They’re very hardy and are not prone to a lot of diseases.

Why is it Called Witch Hazel?

The plant’s name does not refer to witchcraft, but comes from the Middle English word wych or wyche, meaning pliant or flexible, which is a reference to the plant’s very flexible branches. The “hazel” in the name comes from the plant’s similarity to the common hazelnut.

witch-hazel-shrub.jpg

Witch Hazel in the Garden

If for no other reason than its time of winter bloom, witch hazel is a valuable landscaping plant—but it’s also attractive in the spring and summer with its dark green leaves and graceful, spreading vase shape.

Choose its planting site carefully, because most varities grow 25 feet tall and just as wide. Witch hazels can be kept smaller with pruning once they are finished blooming. However, they really do best in large planting areas for normal growth. With their shallow, slow-growing root systems, it’s best you have plenty of room.

Being shade tolerant, witch hazel is often used for naturalizing wooded areas, but these plants actually perform best in full sun (or, filtered shade in hot zones) and develop brighter fall foliage when planted in the open.

They prefer well-amended soil and regular water, and are tolerant of both acid or alkaline conditions. 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

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.

Its leaves, bark, and twigs are still used to make astringents for treating certain skin inflammations and other irritations; the plant contains tannins which help decrease swelling and fight bacteria.

The witch hazel that we find in the medicine cabinet today is made by distilling the bark of twigs and roots with alcohol, which creates 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.

Do you use witch hazel or have a witch hazel shrub in your garden? Let us know in the comments!

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

Just wondering ...

Could witch hazel survive in the winter weather conditions of SE Minnesota ?

witch hazel zones

The Editors's picture

It’s possible to likely, as the state is covered by USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 (north) to 5 (south) and witch hazel is hardy in zones 4 to 8, some sources say 3 to 8.

witch hazel

I planted a witch hazel some 15+ years ago and have enjoyed the early show of yellow telling me that spring is near. Along with the yellow in color arborvitae, it is one of the few things with some color in the neighborhood.

My "Jalena" witch hazel

My Jalena is doing really well its 3rd year and has blooms all over it this February in SC. My problem is that last summer's leaves are ALL hanging on to the branches hiding the blooms. They are ugly brown. Not good for me. Is there anything I can do besides pick off each leaf. They are hanging on strong.

why leaves from last year still cling

The Editors's picture

The effect that you describe is called leaf marcescence; it’s the trait of deciduous and refers to retaining plant parts after they (the parts) are dead and dry. It’s not clear why some trees and shrubs do this. Normally, the leaves come “unglued” (not the technical term) and fall off in autumn. Sometimes an early cold spell may interrupt the leaf drop. Reduced sunlight might inhibit it, causing leaves to remain attached. There are other possibilies, but know that when new growth appears in spring, it will release the leaves and you will forget it ever happened.

Witch Hazel Bushes

I had 3 witch hazel bushes put in last year and they are not doing well. They haven’t produced much foliage and now that it is fall I have no blossoms. They have not grown in height either. Could it be the clay soil?

Struggling Witch Hazel

The Editors's picture

It’s hard to say for sure why they’re not doing well, as there are a lot of things that factor in to a plant’s success in the garden. Clay soil could certainly be a culprit, however. Witch hazel prefers to grow in rich, moist soil in partial shade, but clay soil may be a step too far in the “compacted” direction.

Another factor could be the pH of the soil. Witch hazel grows best in slightly acidic soils, so if yours leans more towards basic, it could be prohibiting proper growth. 

We would recommend doing a soil test through your state’s cooperative extension, which will tell you what kind of soil you have already and what’s missing. They may also be able to give you more advice for getting your witch hazel back on track!

Question

Are you in the US? I'm curious of what state, because I live in SC, and we have clay-ish type soil too.

Usin Witch Hazel lotion on my dog

My dog has a rash on his abdomen and on the area between his legs. I have discussed this with 3 Vets and none of them seems interested! The rash gets worse at times, and then sometimes almost goes away. The dog licks at it so it must be bothering him some. I have used Witch Hazel myself for years, and wondered if it would hurt to use it on the dog to try to relieve the condition. I would appreciate your reply. Thanks in advance.

witch hazel

I have used witch hazel for hemorrhoids. The doctors medicine was not reducing the swelling and he was talking about surgery. I looked in an old medical book I had and they talked about using witch hazel. After using it for 3 days they had shrunk by more than half. It made me a believer.

WitchHazel

This is interesting;
What attracted the attention of witch hazel as an herbal product was a patent medicine developed in the mid 1800s. In the 1840's, Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York established an association with the Oneida Indians of the state. He learned from a medicine man that they held a shrub in high esteem for all types of burns, + boils. It was witch hazel. Pond learned as much as he could of the extract, and finally after several years, in 1848, Mr. Pond and the Medicine Man decided to market the extract, under the trade name "Golden Treasure". After several moves and sales of the company, a manufacturing facility was established in Connecticut, and after the death of Theron Pond, the name of the witch hazel preparation was changed to "Pond's Extract".
Witch Hazel Today
The witch hazel industry is still centered in Connecticut with the E. E. Dickinson Co., the T. N. Dickinson Co., and the American Distilling and Manufacturing Co., producing most of the witch hazel extract sold on the American market. Much of the harvest still comes from the woods of northwestern Connecticut, where landowners contract directly with the manufaturers. Harvest begins in the autumn. Branches are cut to the ground, but resprout, producing a new harvest in a few years. Portable chippers allow for on site processing. It is then taken to the factories for distillation in stainless-steel vats. The witch hazel is steam distilled for thirty-six hours, then re-heated, condensed and filtered.

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