Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
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, China and Japan. 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 supposedly 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.
Questions & Answers
Question: Why is the bark on my mature witch hazel coming off? Will this kill the tree?
Answer: It is natural occurence. The bark on all witch hazels peel. It will not kill the shrub.
Question: Is the plant or shrub sold in nurseries?
Answer: Yes! You will find containerized shrubs in your local nursery either in the fall or the spring. They will be young, small plants that don't look like much. Purchase a healthy one, plant it in your yard in full sun and it will grow into an amazing 10 to 15 feet shrub within a few years.
Question: What small animals does witch hazel attract? I don't need more nuisance animals near my house. Anything poisonous on the plant?
Answer: I don't know where you live, so I can't give you an exact answer. The best I can do is to tell you that witch hazel will attract seed-eating animals. Native plants evolved to be a part of the ecosystem providing food and cover for the animals and insects in the area. Any time you plant a native plant, you are inviting animals and insects into your yard. The only way to prevent what you call nuisance animals is to eliminate all plants, native and exotic, from your yard. As for your other question, as far as I know, the plant is not poisonous.
Question: Can witch hazel be found in Kenya?
Answer: Witch hazel does not grow naturally in Kenya. Check with your local plant nurseries to see if they carry it.
Question: What types of witch hazel are best in Philadelphia area?
Answer: I always recommend using native species over exotics. The most popular native witch hazel is the Hamamelis virginiana.
© 2017 Caren White
Caren White (author) on October 03, 2019:
Witch hazel is a native plant so no supplemental watering is required. It has evolved to survive on just rainfall here in North America.
william on October 03, 2019:
how much water does it need
Caren White (author) on December 23, 2017:
I used witch hazel on my own skin as a teenager. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Dianna Mendez on December 23, 2017:
I remember my mom using witch hazel when I was a child for different skin treatments. Your article has educated me on the plant and also the harmful effects if taken internally.
Caren White (author) on December 20, 2017:
Moonlake, like most native plants, witch hazel is very hardy and disease resistant. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Caren White (author) on December 20, 2017:
Sharon, I agree! They will provide you and the local wildlife with years of pleasure. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Sharon Vile from Odessa, MO on December 19, 2017:
Many years ago I saw witch hazel in flower for the first time--in February! I now have two witch hazels, though they aren't yet of flowering size. This is a real treasure of a plant!
moonlake from America on December 19, 2017:
I did not know witch hazel grows in zone 3. Good to hear. I always have witch hazel in the house. I didn’t know it was good for dousing. Enjoyed your hub.
Caren White (author) on December 19, 2017:
You're welcome, Stephanie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Stephanie Bradberry from New Jersey on December 19, 2017:
Thanks for sharing this information with us!