Witch Hazel in the Garden

Add Witch Hazel to Your Garden for Healing and Winter Interest!

By George Lohmiller
March 3, 2021
Witch Hazel

Witch Hazel

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Witch hazel’s 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!

About Witch Hazel

The witch hazel plant, also called winterbloom, is a large native flowering shrub or small tree with dazzling clear yellow flowers that bloom in late fall or winter (depending on the variety)—adding color and fragrance during a time when much of Earth is dormant.

For much of the year, witch hazel 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. But when witch hazel blossoms, the fragrant, tasseled yellow blossoms often appear against a background of early snow.

The botanical name, Hamamelis, translates to “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that the fruit and flowers occur on the same plant at the same time. This is a very unique feature of native North American trees. 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

Planting 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. Often, it’s used as a large border shrub and it thrives under the canopy of larger trees. Plants are typically upright-spreading and rather loosely branched. The somewhat zigzagging branches offer interesting form, and its upright nature lends itself to an opportunity for under-planting with bulbs or small perennials.

There are a couple of popular species native to North America (H. virginianaH. vernalis) as well as non-natives from Asia.

  • The common witch hazel (H. virginiana) is noted for good fall color which is usually bright yellow blooming from October to December. 
  • The vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) is similar to the common witch hazel except that its features are generally smaller. The most significant difference between these native species is flowering time, which is usually late winter/early spring.

Choose its planting site carefully, because common witch hazel (H. virginiana) can grow 25 feet tall and just as wide. Vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) is generally of smaller stature, maturing at a height of 6 to 10 feet. 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 moist, well-amended, well-drained 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. They are moderately resistant to drought once established.

Witch Hazel doesn’t require pruning. Due to their spreading growth habit, however, they may need to be occasionally pruned to maintain an upright form, or to allow for clearance beneath the canopy. The common witch hazel (H. virginiana) is especially prone to suckering as it colonizes, and these suckers should be removed to maintain a tidy appearance if so desired. 

Learn more about shrubs for fall landscaping.

Witch Hazel as a Natural Remedy

Native Americans used the plant’s springy wood to make bows. The shrub is also valued for its medicinal qualities: the astringent leaves and bark were used to control bleeding and take the sting out of insect bites. A tea could also be made from witch hazel, working as a mild sedative.

Today, witch hazel is still used as an astringent for treating skin inflammations and irritations; the plant contains tannins that help decrease swelling and fight bacteria. In fact, it is one of the very few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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.

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

WITCH HAZEL

Where can I get a plant of WITCH HAZEL for my garden??

witch hazel

We have always kept witch hazel on hand, and used it for scrapes and bruises on children especially since it doesn't sting when used as a wound cleaner or antiseptic. Good for burns, haemmorhoids, etc. My husband was a surgeon and so I never gave it a second thought- whatever he recommended. I would love to grow a bush of it- could make tea which i never considered. Could probably keep bush trimmed to a good size and use the trimmings medicinally.

Witch hazel

Have Witch hazel growing in my wood lot. Didn’t know what it was till about 5 yrs ago. Some are 20 ft tall and some are 5 ft tall. Slow growers but healthy . They are growing in heavy soil. All wild in nature. None were planted.Northern Michigan

pruning

I don't have room for a 25' plant. Can they be kept pruned to about 6 or 7 feet tall without harming them? Thanks.

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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