What Is Witch Hazel?
Can you name a native shrub that blooms in the late fall/early winter and is often mistaken for forsythia, a non-native shrub? If you guessed witch hazel, give yourself a pat on the back. Not many people know about this unique plant.
What is Witch Hazel?
Witch hazel is a large shrub or a small multi-stemmed tree that is native to North America. There are four species in North America. The most commonly used variety is Hamamelis virginiana. Outside of North America, there is one species native to China and another species native to Japan.
In addition to being an attractive landscape plant, witch hazel is the source of the witch hazel astringent you see being sold in stores. The Native Americans knew of its astringent properties and taught them to the European colonists. You can make your own by boiling the inner bark in water. The inner bark is the white part found inside of the bark when you peel it off of the branch. The astringent is commonly used for skin ailments and hemorrhoids.
The active astringent ingredients are tannins which are toxic if taken internally. Only use witch hazel water topically. Never drink it.
Another interesting use for the shrub is dousing. It is believed that forked sticks from the plant have the ability to find water underground. Dousers cut forked sticks from the shrub and then, holding the sticks parallel to the ground, walk around an area suspected of having underground water. If the water exists, the forked stick will point downwards indicating where the water in located.
How to Grow Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is hardy in zones 3 through 9. It grows best in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. In full sun, it will grow to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide. The shrubs grow best in moist, slightly acidic soil similar to that which blueberries prefer. In fact, in the wild they are often found growing together.
Witch hazel makes a lovely landscape plant because it naturally grows in a vase shape, with little to no pruning required to maintain its shape. In the spring and summer, it is covered with dark green leaves which turn a bright yellow in the fall. The bright yellow blossoms appear between September and November but aren’t readily seen until after the leaves have dropped.
The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit” which describes how the flowers appear along with last year’s fruit. The fruit of witch hazel can be yellow, red or orange. It takes 8 months to mature. Each fruit contains two glossy black seeds. At maturity, the fruits literally explode apart shooting the seeds up to 30 feet away from the plant.
After pollination, the flowers then produce next year’s fruit, which will mature at the same time that next year’s flowers appear. The flowers are pollinated by a moth that remains active during the winter. It is known, appropriately, as the Winter Moth.
How to Grow Witch Hazel From Seed
It is difficult to propagate witch hazel from cuttings. Most propagation is done from seed. But you need to be patient. The seed can take up to two years to germinate. In the wild, it “only” takes 18 months. The trick to germinating the seeds is to remember that in nature, during that 18 months the seeds experience both cold and warm weather. You need to mimic these temperature variations to coax the seeds into germination.
Using fresh seed, sow it in a container and lightly cover it with soil. Keep the container at a temperature of 85⁰F for two months. You are trying to fool the seed into thinking that it is now summer. Then move the container to your refrigerator for three months. Now it is “winter”. Throughout this process, be sure to keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy.
After three months in the refrigerator, you can remove your container and move it outside as long as the outdoor temperatures are at least 75⁰F. Germination should finally occur in another 2 to 3 months. Keep your seedlings in a semi-shady location until late summer when you can begin to acclimate it to full sun before transplanting it into your garden.
Witch hazel grows very slowly, only 4 to 12 inches each year. Grown from seed, it will reach a mature flowering size in six years.
When adding shrubs to your landscape, try to use native plants such as the witch hazel. Besides being adapted to our climate and environmental conditions, native plants are an important food source for local wildlife. In the case of witch hazel, it is the seeds that are a valuable food source. Many birds and small animals find the seeds tasty and, as noted above, the pollen is an important food source for the winter moth.
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© 2017 Caren White