Witch hazel. While it would be fun to imagine that the name witch hazel has something to do with Halloween and cauldrons, the words actually come from the Middle English wiche, meaning bendable or pliant, and the Germanic hæsel, which can refer to any temperate shrub or small tree. Sorry for popping your bubble, but these trees really do have plenty to offer.
During my visit to the Missouri Botanical Gardens, I saw lovely, low spreading trees that happen to provide a bonus of striking flowers. In winter! The trees I saw were tucked away under larger deciduous trees, often with a backdrop of evergreens. While generally pruned into the shape of a small tree, I have since learned that witch hazels will also grow into a many-stemmed shrub, and that there is even a weeping variety. But it is the flowers that captured my attention. These are not your garden variety roses or daisies.
Witch hazel flowers
While we generally focus on edible plants at The Daily Garden, I had to make an exception for witch hazel trees. The winter flowers of witch hazel provide color, nectar, and pollen through the lean winter months, increasing biodiversity, and improving your mood. At a time when everything else is gray, these striking flowers are visual fireworks in an otherwise drab view. Witch hazel flowers can be a buttery yellow color, or they may be a brilliant orange or red. Very often, flower petals have a red or purple base, adding depth to the color.
The witch hazel tree
The genus name for this group, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”. This name refers to the way flowers and new stems occur while fruit from the previous year is still on the tree. Very often, flowers will start out yellow, then shift to orange, and end their lives a fiery red before falling to the ground. The fun thing about witch hazel trees, especially with the yellow flowering varieties, is that they look like sunflower trees, in the dead of winter.
There are four species of witch hazel, or winterbloom, native to North America: H. mexicana, H. ovalis, H. virginiana, and H. vernalis. Each of these varieties has a pleasant fragrance. There is also one Japanese variety, H. japonica, and one Chinese variety, H. mollis, neither of which have a fragrance. There are also several different cultivars. Pacific Horticulture has an excellent description of the many cultivars available today.
Witch hazel trees are deciduous. They can reach a height of 40’, but most of them peak out at 10 feet. Witch hazels seem to prefer a lower growth, keeping to the shadows of other, larger trees. Witch hazel trees will not perform well, left exposed to California’s scorching summer sun, but they make lovely understory trees. The fruit is a capsule that contains one or more black seeds. When the fruit is ripe, it splits explosively, ejecting seeds up to 30 feet from the parent tree. [In some areas, these trees are called Snapping Hazels because of this behavior.] Witch hazel trees have thin bark and shallow roots, so it is important to keep newly planted trees well irrigated.
How to grow witch hazel
Growing witch hazel requires patience. After they have been cold stratified, seeds take up to a year to germinate. You will want to start them in pots, where they will stay for 2 or 3 years, before they will be ready for transplanting. Flowers do not appear until plants are 6 years old. Native to the northeast and throughout the Appalachian Mountains, witch hazel prefers life on the northern side of everything: the north side of your house, on north facing slopes, that sort of thing.
Witch hazel extract
These are the trees that provide us with the popular astringent of the same name. Native Americans used witch hazel extract to treat a wide variety of conditions, including inflammations, tumors, and swellings. The Puritans adopted these practices and many medical claims are made about the effectiveness of witch hazel, some of which are true, while others are not. According to WebMD, the leaves, bark, and twigs of witch hazel contain tannins that reduce swelling, which is why it is used to treat bags under your eyes, hemorrhoids, minor bleeding, and mild skin irritations. All the other claims about witch hazel extract are unsubstantiated.
Before you go trying to make your own witch hazel extract, you need to understand that the inexpensive plastic bottle of witch hazel available at the drugstore is a distilled version of the original recipe. It’s probably not worth the trouble of trying to make your own, unless you are really into that sort of thing. Also, witch hazel can be toxic, so be careful.
Witch hazel lore
Forked witch hazel branches are the tool of choice as dowsing or divining rods. Early settlers observed the Native Americans using witch hazel branches to find underground water sources. According to the American Society of Dowsers, “The dowsing rod is a simple instrument which shows the reaction of the human nervous system to certain factors which are unknown to us at this time.” Sounds fair enough. Apparently, the flexibility of witch hazel limbs makes them particularly sensitive and responsive to those as yet unknown reactions.
If you have a shady spot in your landscape and need some winter color, witch hazel might be just what you need.
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