853 Hamamelis virginianaCommon Names: witchhazel Family: Hamamelidaceae (witch-hazel Family)
Witchhazel typically is thought of as a coarse-textured broadly rounded shrub with a short trunk and numerous crooked branches. But it can grow into a 20-30 ft (6.1-9.1 m) tree with a trunk diameter of up to 10 in (25.4 cm) and an open crown with a spread of 20-25 ft (6.1-7.6 m). The smooth thin bark is light brown, developing rough patches and becoming scaly as the tree ages. The slender brown zigzag twigs arise from forked flexible branches. They start out covered with gray or rust colored hairs, but become smooth as they harden. The alternate leaves emerge from scaleless stalked hairy buds. The leaves are elliptic to nearly circular in shape, and irregularly roundtoothed along their wavy edges. They are 2-6 in (5.1-15.2 cm) long, nearly as broad, and have 5-7 prominent veins. The upper surfaces are usually smooth, but both sides of the leaf may be hairy and the veins typically are. The leaves are a medium green above and paler below during the growing season, then turn a clear yellow in the fall.
After the leaves have fallen, in late autumn and winter, squiggly clusters of fragrant flowers appear dangling from the bases of the leaf scars. The very narrow and crumpled looking 2/3 in (1.7 cm) long petals and sepals (four of each) droop and curl in such a way as to make the blossom look rather like a little yellow octopus. The fruits that follow are hairy brown 1/2 in (1.3 cm) oval capsules. After ripening the following summer, they split open explosively and shoot small shiny black seeds up to 30 ft (9.1 m) in all directions. There are two botanical varieties of witchhazel: the widespread H. virginiana var. virginiana, and the "prairie peninsula" form, H. virginiana var. parvifolia. There is also a horticultural cultivar called 'Rubescens' which has reddish flowers.
Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis), which is found in the wild only along rocky streams in the Ozarks, blooms in late winter to early spring. It is a low shrub with furry twigs and sweet smelling reddish tinged blossoms. The American witchhazels can be confused with two Oriental species commonly grown as ornamentals. One of these is H. japonica from Japan and the other is H. mollis from China. These species have been hybridized to create Hamamelis x intermedia. American hazelnut (Corylus americana) has similar shaped leaves, but the teeth are smaller and more sharply pointed.
Witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, comes from the eastern United States, ranging into the southern provinces of Canada. It occurs in a wide variety of mesic to xeric woodlands, growing on bluffs, steep ravine slopes, floodplains, and along boggy or rocky streams. It is commonly found along forest edges, often between the dry uplands and the more mesic slope forests. It sometimes forms a near continuous understory beneath the canopy on rich old growth sites.
CultureAlthough the most luxuriant specimens are found on deep rich soil, witchhazel is generally content with an ordinary sandy loam with moderate fertility. This species prefers a neutral to slightly acid soil pH, but will tolerate somewhat calcareous soil if it is kept moist. This is a mid- to late-successional species with a moderate growth rate. It is low in fire resistance due to its thin bark, shallow roots, and low branching habit. Light: Witchhazel prefers sun, but tolerates shade. Plants grown in heavy shade will have a more open form and less intense fall color. Moisture: Witchhazel is shallow rooted and does not tolerate drought well. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 9. Witchhazel will survive temperatures down to about 35 F below zero, but it should be sheltered from cold drying winds in northern climates. Propagation: In the wild, reproduction is primarily from seed. The mature capsules burst open explosively discharging the seeds up to 30-40' from the parent plant. Some seeds are dispersed by birds. Witchhazel seeds should be harvested as soon as the fruits mature in late summer to early fall and sown in a coldframe promptly. Fresh seeds may take up to 18 months to germinate. Seeds allowed to dry on the plant or stored after maturity will require two months of warm stratification, then one month of cold, followed by another two weeks warm and another four months cold - then a long wait for germination. Scarification may improve germination speed and percentage. When the seedlings appear, prick them out and pot them up for overwintering in the greenhouse their first year. They can be planted out late the following spring and will reach flowering size in about six years. Witchhazel suckers freely and also can be propagated by layering in early spring or fall. Layering works well, but the process will take a year. Softwood cuttings can be rooted under mist in the summer. Volunteer seedlings can also be potted up and transplanted.
Witchhazel is a useful species for shrub borders, forest edge plantings, wildlife habitat enhancement projects, and naturalistic landscaping. The nutty seeds taste sort of like pistachios and were greatly enjoyed by native Americans. They considered witchhazel an important medicinal plant. The bark was used to treat skin ulcers, sores, and tumors. Boiled or steaming twigs were employed to loosen and soothe sore muscles. Witchhazel tea was taken to stop internal bleeding and to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs. A decoction of leaves and twigs was applied to cuts, bruises, and insect bites. The modern witchhazel industry is centered in Connecticut, where the branches are harvested from the wild by cutting them off at ground level in the fall. The bushes resprout so that they can be cut again a few years later. The distilled oil, which is one of the few herbal products approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an ingredient in nonprescription drugs, goes into extracts, lotions, and salves for pain relief, skin care, and hemorrhoid treatment. Since its antioxidant, radiation protective, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties have been acknowledged, witchhazel may have potential for many more medical applications. For less scientific reasons, forked witchhazel branches are also favored as divining rods for locating sources of underground water.
Witchhazel's most outstanding characteristic is its habit of flowering in the winter when other blooms are scarce. It is cherished for branches that can be cut and brought indoors to flower where their soft sweet perfume can be savored. It is also useful for its tolerance of urban environments and its yellow fall color.
If you bring flowering witchhazel branches indoors, be careful to remove the seed capsules from the previous year. Otherwise, the warm indoor air will cause them to split open with alarming popping noises and spew seeds out across the room.
Steve Christman 10/29/00; updated 3/19/01, 1/12/04