Potted Witch Hazel in a nursery
Today, witch hazel is used in cosmetics, and a lotion of the
extract and alcohol is marketed as a first aid for abrasions and
Forked stems of this plant have been used as "divining rods,"
too. The stems are said to dip down when held over underground
water, thereby locating the site of a future well, a practice
known as "water witching."
Witch hazel is a genus of deciduous slow-growing small trees and
shrubs native to Asia, the eastern United States and Mexico.
There are five species and nearly 100 cultivars, all of which
are multi-stemmed. Most are upright with broad-spreading, open
canopies and have great value in lighting up an otherwise drab,
Depending on the species or cultivar, they have bright yellow,
apricot to orange or red flowers that last about one month. Each
bloom has four wispy petals radiating outward. The petals vary
in length according to species. Individual flowers may not be
showy, yet because they are arranged in clusters by the hundreds
along branches and twigs, their effect is mesmerizing.
Witch hazels need a chilling time below 45 degrees before they
flower and may bloom earlier in a mild winter. Their flowers are
adapted to winter cold, averting freeze damage by closing when
They thrive in well-drained organic-rich acidic soil. They
prefer partial shade but can tolerate full sun if they receive
adequate water, especially during periods of drought. Plants
grown in full sun will exhibit denser foliage and flower more
heavily than those grown in shade.
Another U.S. native, vernal witch hazel (vernalis), is hardy in
USDA Zones 4-8 and grows along stream banks in Missouri and
Arkansas. Its yellow to reddish and deeply fragrant flowers are
the smallest but most profuse of all the witch hazels. Flowers
bloom in January, sometimes by Christmas in mild winters. More
shrubby that other species and maturing at 6 to 10 feet in
height, vernal witch hazel colonizes and, with its attractive
golden fall foliage, can be massed as a screen or unpruned
Asian Witch Hazels
There are two Asian witch hazel species, both hardy in USDA
Zones 5-8, that bloom in February-March. They include Chinese
witch hazel (H. mollis) and Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica).
Both have classic spidery witch hazel flowers, but H. mollis is
the most fragrant witch hazel, while H. japonica boasts superb
fall foliage. These species have been bred with our native witch
hazels to create plants that add greatly to the home landscape.
In the 1940s, crosses or hybrids of the Asian species, found in
Boston's Arnold Arboretum and in Europe, were classified as a
separate species, Hamamelis xintermedia (USDA Zones 5-8).
Whether you're choosing a witch hazel for fragrance, floral
impact or fall foliage, there are cultivars suited for each use.
Cultivars have also been selected for losing their leaves before
the flowers appear, one of the less desired traits of native
species. Some recommended cultivars include:
'Arnold Promise': vase-shaped, with fragrant light yellow,
late-winter blooms, and red and yellow fall color. Grows
15-20 feet tall and 10-12 feet wide. Introduced by the
'Jelena': Belgian cultivar, more horizontal in habit with
early to midwinter copper-orange flowers and good orange-red
fall foliage. Grows 15 feet tall and wide.
'Diane': Belgian cultivar, late winter bloom of deep red
flowers fading to copper and vivid red, yellow and orange
fall color. Grows 10 feet tall and wide.
'New Year's Gold' and 'Orange Sunrise': Both cultivars of H.
vernalis that lose their leaves before they flower in the
'Pallida': Early flowering with soft yellow, very fragrant
blooms and yellow fall color. An RHS selection, grows 8 feet
tall and 15 feet wide.
Witch hazels are perfect for a modest-sized garden and their
tree-like habit allows for underplanting of choice groundcovers,
bulbs and shade-loving perennials. Be sure to site them where
you can enjoy their flowers from inside a warm house or up close
in a part of the garden where you can appreciate their subtle
beauty. Whether used as a specimen or grouped for effect,
low-maintenance witch hazels are a delight in the fall and
winter landscape and a promise that spring will come again.