The Bewitching Witchhazel

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

If they haven’t hit earlier, chances are good that by now most gardeners are suffering from the winter blahs and finding themselves faced with the dilemma of trying to locate a bit of welcome color in the bleak winter landscape. For those of us lucky enough to have a Witchhazel planted near the house, the predicament is resolved by a simple walk to the end of the driveway.

Genus Hamamelis or the Witchhazel is a woody perennial, sometimes defined as a tree, sometimes as a shrub, that will brighten any landscape during the long winter months. What a delight to come across its unexpected color on a frosty February morning or to see its unusual threadlike yellow flowers peeping out from under a layer of snow.

No other hardy woody plant, native or exotic, can match the magical flower display of the Witchhazel. Most varieties bloom anywhere from January to March except for the autumn witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which blooms in the fall of the year. The most common flower color is yellow, but flowers also come in shades of orange, bronze and burgundy-red. Blooms are highly fragrant and extremely durable, blooming over a long period. Since the petals close up when it’s very cold, they can last for up to a month in temperatures that would decimate the flowers of other plants.

Although winter is Witchhazel’s time to shine, its leaves display good medium to dark green color during the growing season and often change to dazzling colors that last for 2 to 3 week in autumn. It is a good plant architecturally, as well, with its attractive multi-stemmed shape. Crooked stems supporting long forking branches make wonderful silhouettes against a winter sky at sunset.

Witchhazels grow well in our area, looking their best in a naturalized setting. In the wild, they are most often found growing in light shade in moist, well-drained, acid soil typical of low damp woods. They are adaptable, however, and can be successfully grown in full sun as long as they are protected from severe drought and heat. Relatively slow growing, they do not need much pruning. They stand up very well against insect and disease infestations as long as they are planted where they can avoid severe drought, heat reflection and sunscald. Mine was in the ground a year before our recent string of summer droughts and is doing beautifully.

Because of their size and stature, Witchhazels are great for smaller gardens. A good average size is 10 to 15 feet in both height and width, but sizes vary among the available varieties, so it is best to check with a local nursery.

Varieties include the natives, Hamamelis vernalis (Native Vernal Witchhazel) and Hamamelis virginiana (Autumn Witchhazel) and imports such as Hamamelis mollis (Chinese Witchhazel) and Hamamelis japonica (Japanese Witchhazel). Hybrids are available and are some of the prettiest Witchhazels. Not only are their flowers outstanding like ‘Arnold Promise’ with its bright luminous yellow, spider-looking flowers and reddish calyx cups, but the leaves of many varieties exhibit great fall foliage in shades of rich yellow, orange apricot and fiery combinations of red, orange and burgundy.

One of the most fascinating things to me about Witchhazel is its proported "magical" powers. Folklore tells us that underground water can be found by walking an area carrying a forked twig of Witchhazel loosely in your hands until the twig bends downward, pointing to where to dig for water.

The Witchhazel is said to have medicinal value as well. The inner bark, cooked into a syrup, was used by Native Americans for coughs and fever. The Cherokee tribes of North American made a potion of its leaves and bark and found it soothing, cooling and astringent. We always had a bottle of the commercial variety in our medicine cabinet when I was a kid used to treat cuts and abrasions. I remember, on more than one occasion, the stinging yet cooling sensation of this colorless liquid as it was applied to the blisters from my latest bout with poison ivy.

The Witchhazel is an agreeable, undemanding landscape plant that deserves more attention than it is currently given. It has just the right mix of beauty and mystery that should make it irresistible for any gardener.

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

Read other articles by Betty Jakum