Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Witchhazels are landscape shrubs deserving of wider use, attractive for their nice habit, fall foliage and long-blooming fragrant flowers. In fact, they are the earliest and latest shrubs to flower during the season. While the native species is the most hardy, its yellow-orange fall flowers are not as attractive as those with more colorful yellow, orange or red flowers in spring. They’re easy to grow, require little maintenance, and have few if any pests and problems.
If you haven’t heard of these shrubs, you may have heard of the medicinal products made from them now, and originally by Native Americans. The extract from leaves and bark is used for sores and bruises. The distilled oil is used in skin care products for a range of purposes, from aftershave to skin ailments such as psoriasis and eczema, to insect bites and poison ivy rashes. You will find it in many hemorrhoid preparations too.
This genus (Hamamelis) is the main member of the Witchhazel family. The name comes from an Old English word for pliant or bendable branches. Or the “witch” may be related to the centuries old use of stems as divining rods in dowsing for water. They’re not closely related to the true hazels (Corylus) that bear the nuts of the same name.
Witchhazels are deeply rooted, multi-stemmed shrubs with a rounded to irregular upright growth habit. They often have an attractive branching structure. These medium to large shrubs reach 6 to 12 feet high or more. They spread (they’re not aggressive spreaders) to eventually form large clumps 12 to 15 feet across. Leaves are rounded to elongated, 2 to 5 inches long. Flowers are rather unique, consisting of four narrow, strap-like petals under an inch long, in various colors and often twisted. Blooms appear either in spring or fall, depending on selection, and last 4 weeks or more. They have an elusive fruity to spicy fragrance.
In nature, witchhazels grow along the edges of woods, so are fine in part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun a day). They will grow in full sun as well, where they’ll be more dense, rounded, and with more flowers. They won’t grow well in deep shade.
Although adaptable to a range of soils, they don’t grow well in ones that are too wet or prone to dry out frequently. Add lots of peat moss or organic matter when planting. Water well and deeply when the top 2 inches of soil dries out, particularly in the first two years after planting. Fertilize with product of your choice each spring, or simply top dress around plants with an inch of compost.
Witchhazels are good choices for naturalistic landscapes with plants such as viburnums, winterberries, redosier dogwood, serviceberries, or foamflowers underneath. They make a nice contrast to evergreen shrubs. Being large, consider them for backs of borders, or used singly as accent plants. In sun, where they become dense, they make good screens or informal hedges. If you want to enjoy the subtle fragrance and beauty of the flowers, plant witchhazels near walks or patios. If used near buildings, make sure they’ll have enough room to grow over time.
Cut branches of witchhazels during late winter to “force” into bloom indoors in one to two weeks. Place the base of branches in warm water, changing the water every day or two. Keep them in a cool area, out of sun, with a clear bag over branches until flowering to keep the humidity high. If branches are already beginning to bloom when cut, place in warm water containing flower preservative (from floral shops). These are often best used in simple or Japanese-style arrangements.
The native common witchhazel (H. virginiana) has yellow flowers in October when the golden leaves begin falling, so are really only seen once all leaves are off. ‘Harvest Moon’ is a selection from breeder Richard Jaynes of Connecticut, with lemon-yellow flowers that appear a couple weeks later, once leaves have fallen, so are better appreciated. Flowers of this eastern U.S. native are hardy through USDA zone 4 (to -30 degrees F). This plant can become one of the largest in this genus, reaching 20 feet tall and wide with an open, spreading habit.
The vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), native to the Midwest and South, is very early spring blooming with a pungent fragrance. The yellow to red-orange flower petals, about a half- inch long, appear before the leaves which have a reddish cast as they unfold. These are slightly less hardy than those of the common witchhazel, but still through much of USDA zone 4. You may find the cultivars ‘Autumn Embers’ with orange flowers or the yellow ‘Sandra’.
Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis) is less hardy, being marginal in USDA zone 5 with flowers damaged at -10 to -15 degrees (F). It and its cultivars have flowers in varying degrees of yellow to gold. Japanese witchhazel (H. japonica) is similar to the Chinese, with similar hardiness, but with less showy and less fragrant flowers and is less commonly found.
Most commonly found are the hybrids (H. x intermedia) between the Chinese and Japanese, with more vigor than either. Upright and spreading with time, they are usually 12 to 15 feet high and wide, but could grow even larger. They often flower into USDA zone 5 in the north in early spring, as their parents, with their flowers hardy to about -20 degrees. There are many cultivars of the hybrid witchhazel, ‘Pallida’ with its sulfur yellow flowers being one of the best. ‘Diane’ has orange red flowers, while ‘Jelena’ has coppery orange flowers and orange red fall foliage. ‘Arnold Promise’, originally named in 1963 at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, has yellow flowers arising out of a red cup (“calyx”). It is one of the best and most popular.
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