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 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!