Witch Hazel

Want a garden tree that blooms when all else is sleeping?  Has bright, weird looking flowers that have a beautiful scent?  Is useful around the home?  Meet the witch hazel.  The American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a small tree/shrub native to Eastern United States with a colorful and useful history that continues to this day.  The unusual flowering plant has a place in landscaping for its colors and scent, as well as in the home for the astringent properties of the leaves and bark.  All in all, a great plant to consider for your property.

Witch hazel is thought to get its common name from “Wicke” from Middle English, which means “lively”, and “wych” from Anglo-saxon for “bend”.  A possible nod to one of its uses as a divining rod. The genus name, Hamamelis, comes from the Greek meaning for a kind of medlar, or service tree.[1]    

Hamamelis virginiana is one of our native witch hazels.  It grows throughout northeast and southeast North America from Nova Scotia to Florida and from the Great Lakes down to eastern Texas.  The tree/shrub is on the small side, growing up to 30 feet tall, but more usually found at around 12 feet tall.  Unusual, scented yellow flowers with long thin petals bloom in fall about the time the leaves turn yellow and persist on the tree after the leaves drop.  H. virginiana is an understory plant in nature and so when planting choose a northern site in partial shade with moist soil.[2] There is another native witch hazel found in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri and Arkansas.  The Hamamelis vernalis, or Ozark witch hazel, blooms in late winter/early spring with fragrant flowers similar to the H. virginiana but smaller. 

Hybrid witch hazels are also available and are a cross between Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel) and Hamamelis japonica (Japanese witch hazel).  They come in a multitude of tree shapes, sizes, as well as spring blooming flowers in colors that range red, purple, pink, orange and various yellow shades.  Unlike the American witch hazel, plant the hybrids in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil.  They do not like their toes to remain in water.[3]

Early settlers observed Native Americans using forked branches of witch hazel as a divining rod to locate water and adopted the practice.  They also embraced the Native American use of Hamamelis as a medicinal.  Used externally for inflammation, itching, bug bites, cuts and bruises, and internally for diarrhea, fever, and as a mouth rinse and gargle for inflammation of the gums and throat.[4] [5]  Contemporary studies on the medicinal properties of witch hazel confirm the presence of up to 10% tannins in the plant, supporting the use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory.[6]

Late fall and early spring have limited options for blooming plants and the vibrant colors of witch hazel flowers and leaves make a welcome sight.  Couple that with a plant useful in the home, and you have a beautiful possibility for your garden. 

This information is for education only and is not meant to diagnose, treat or prescribe for any disease or medical condition.  Information on herbs and supplements has not been evaluated by the FDA.

[1] Stritch, L. (n.d.). American Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana L.). Forest Service Shield. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/hamamelis_virginiana.shtml

[2] Ibid.

3 Which witch hazel should be in your yard?/Chicago Botanic Garden. (n.d.). www.chicagobotanic.org. https://www.chcagobotanic.org/plantinfo/smart_gardener/which_witch_hazel_should_be_your_yard.

[4] Van Wyk, B., Wink, M. Medicinal plants of the world. 2004. Timber Press. Portland, OR.

[5] Stuart, A. (n.d.) Witch Hazel: Uses and Risks. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/witch-hazel-uses-and-risks. Accessed 1/7/22.

[6] Thring, T. S., Hili, P., & Naughton, D. P. (2011). Antioxidant and potential anti-inflammatory activity of extracts and formulations of white tea, rose, and witch hazel on primary human dermal fibroblast cells. Journal of inflammation (London, England), 8(1), 27. https://doi.org/10.1186/1476-9255-8-27

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