Where to plant witch hazel

Witch hazel

Witch Hazel

When you hear the name witch hazel, you may think of skin care products. But this large shrub or small tree (depending on whom you ask) should be on every gardener’s wish list. With ribbon-like flowers and golden-yellow color, witch hazel releases a spicy scent when it blooms in the fall.

genus name
  • Hamamelis
light
  • Part Sun,
  • Sun
plant type
  • Shrub
height
  • 8 to 20 feet
width
  • From 3 to 12 feet
flower color
  • Purple,
  • Red,
  • Orange,
  • Pink,
  • Yellow
foliage color
  • Blue/Green,
  • Chartreuse/Gold
season features
  • Spring Bloom,
  • Fall Bloom,
  • Colorful Fall Foliage,
  • Winter Bloom
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Fragrance
zones
  • 3,
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9
propagation
  • Seed

Colorful Combinations

Although they are small, witch hazel blossoms are worth planting the shrub. Depending on the species, witch hazel blooms at odd times, usually when nothing else is blossoming. The flowers are generally not much bigger than a penny, composed of ribbon-like petals in a variety of colors such as orange, yellow, red, pink, and purple. What these little flowers lack in size, they make up for in quantity and timing.

One of the U.S. native species, vernal witch hazel, blooms in late winter to early spring before other plants begin leafing out. Bare stems covered in colorful ribbons are stunning, and they are also fragrant. An even more fragrant species is Chinese witch hazel, which blooms even earlier in mid- to late winter. A single shrub of Chinese witch hazel can easily perfume an entire yard. The other U.S. native is common witch hazel (H. virginiana), which blooms in late fall.

See more of our pick for top shrub here.

Witch Hazel Care Must-Knows

Witch hazel is easy to grow in a variety of conditions. It is mildly picky about soil, preferring a slightly acidic loamy soil and a little temperamental in clay soil. Though it’s important witch hazel doesn’t get too wet, make sure it doesn’t dry out during the heat of summer; otherwise it will suffer from leaf scorch. If you have heavier soil, try amending it with plenty of organic matter before planting.

Everything you need to know about soil amendments.

In the wild, you can see witch hazel growing as an understory plant beneath larger trees. While it is tolerant of these conditions, be sure to plant in full sun for a garden-worthy shrub. This will provide the most stunning display of winter flowers. Witch hazel can grow fine in part shade, but expect fewer blossoms and more muted fall colors.

New Innovations

Some of the most recent introductions of witch hazel are the result of a cross between Japanese witch hazel and Chinese witch hazel, often seen as H. x intermedia. These hybrids bloom in mid- to late winter and come in a surprising array of colors. Many retain the lovely fragrance of their Chinese parentage.

See more winter-flowering plants for your garden here.

More Varieties Of Witch Hazel

‘Arnold’s Promise’ witch hazel

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’ shows off yellow fall foliage and large yellow flowers in mid- to late winter. It grows 12 feet tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

Chinese witch hazel

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Hamamelis mollis has some of the most fragrant flowers of all the species. Reaches upward of 20 feet. Zones 5-9

Common witch hazel

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Hamamelis virginiana is a North American native offering yellow flowers in autumn and brilliant golden fall foliage. It grows 12 feet tall and wide. Zones 3-8.

‘Jelena’ Witch Hazel

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ offers lovely orange-red flowers in early winter. In autumn, the foliage turns shades of orange and red. It grows 12 feet tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

‘Sandra’ witch hazel

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Hamamelis vernalis ‘Sandra’ offers golden-yellow flowers in late winter or early spring and yellow autumn foliage. It grows 10 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8.

Common witch-hazel

Size and Form

15 to 25 feet high and 15 to 20 feet wide; irregular form at maturity.
In part shade it will have a more open habit than in full sun.

Tree & Plant Care

Performs best in moist, well-drained soil high in organic matter, but can tolerate clay soil. Mulch to keep soil moist. Avoid dry conditions.
One of the most salt-tolerant shrubs.

Disease, pests and problems

No serious problems.

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity and aerial salt spray

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 8
Native to the eastern United States.
Commonly found in wooded areas.

Attracts birds & butterflies

Seeds are eaten by a number of species of birds.
Serves as a host plant for the larvae of the spring azure butterfly.

Bark color and texture

Tan-colored lenticels are prominent in older grayish stems.

Common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) photo: John Hagstrom

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Simple, alternate leaves are oval and irregular with wavy or toothed margins; 6 inches long.
Leaves are green in summer, changing to a clear yellow in fall.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

1 inch, yellow, strap-like petals flower in late October when leaves are still present.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Fruit is a capsule which ripens in the fall.

Cultivars and their differences

Champlin’s Red common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana ‘Champlin’s Red’): Vase-shaped to rounded 8 to 10 feet high; fragrant, yellow with a tinge of red at base of flowers

Harvest Moon common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana ‘Harvest Moon’): 10 to 15 feet high; showy, fragrant lemon-yellow flowers

Little Suzie common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana ‘Little Suzie’): Compact, 4 to 6 feet high; soft sulfur-yellow flowers

Pendula common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana ‘Pendula’): a slightly weeping form, 6 foot high by 12 feet wide; yellow fragrant flowers

Common Witchhazel

Introduction: This native large shrub or small tree offers attractive yellow foliage and fragrant flowers in fall. It is an excellent plant for naturalized settings. Culture: Common witchhazel performs best in moist soils in full sun or shade. It prefers soils that are slightly acidic or neutral, as it is not as tolerant of high pH as Hamamelis vernalis. Common witchhazel is hardy in Zones 3 to 8, possibly 9. Common witchhazel has no serious disease or insect problems, although it may develop galls on the bottom of its leaves if planted near birch trees.

Botanical Information

  • Native habitat: Canada south to Georgia, west to Arkansas and Nebraska.
  • Growth habit: Large shrub or small tree with large, spreading branches that form a rounded crown.
  • Tree size: 20 to 30 feet tall with a 15- to 20-foot spread.
  • Flower and fruit: Flowers are fragrant and have four yellow, ribbon-like petals. Flowers are borne in November and are effective for 2 to 4 weeks. Fruit is a ½-inch-long capsule. Seeds are discharged one year after flowering.
  • Leaf: Alternate, simple leaves are 3 to 6 inches long. They are medium green in summer. Fall color is yellow and can be excellent.
  • Hardiness: Winter hardy to USDA Zone 3.

Additional information:
The common name witchhazel comes from an old English word that means “to bend.” European species of Hamamelis were once used as divining rods to search for water. Witchhazel bark has been mixed with water and alcohol to make an astringent for sores and bruises. Tannins found in the bark have also been used to treat hemorrhoids and in eye medications. Witchhazel extract has been used in after-shave lotion. The bark of witchhazel is light brown and thin. It peels off to reveal a reddish purple inner bark. Common witchhazel is our native witchhazel and it differs from its Asiatic relatives by flowering in the fall and early winter. The best plants drop their foliage early in the fall to allow a good flower display. The flowers of common witchhazel have four ribbon-like petals and are quite fragrant. The fruit, a capsule, bursts open and shoots seeds up to 12 feet away. This led to another common name for the plant, snapping hazel.

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Growing Hamamelis Witch Hazel

Hamamelis is a winter flowering large shrub or small tree which also provides strong autumn leaf colour. Images right and left shows details of the flowers of Hamamelis, both red and yellow varieties. The centre image is shows the general shape and appearance of a Witch Hazel in flower, in a woodland setting, under planted with snowdrops.

Most Hamamelis flower in winter and do so on bare branches, the flowers appearing before the shrub comes into leaf, similar to Forsythia. Hamamelis x intermedia and Japonica bear flowers in the winter and have lovely autumn colour. A bonus is that some varieties have scented flowers, such as ‘Vesna’ (RHS Merit) a sweet honey scent, ‘Barmstedt Gold’ (RHS merit) scent described as similar to bergamot, H Mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’. Most grow up to around 4metres although there are some smaller varieties.

Flowers are predominantly yellow, but some varieties have red and orange tinges. The Images show that the flowers are spidery and unusual; the scented varieties are good to cut and bring indoors for colour and scent. Hamamelis are slow to get going and can take a couple of years to get established and flower well. Witch Hazel is slow growing about 3-4m in a a 10 year period, which makes it suitable for a smaller garden. Witch Hazel is hardy to H5 which is between -10-15C.

Given that Hamamelis are winter flowering they look good under planted with Helleborus, snowdrops as in the image, and with spring bulbs to make spring woodland garden.

Hamamelis will tolerate partial shade, although they may bloom better in a sunny position which is their preferred growing conditions. To establish Hamamelis in an area of partial shade the other growing conditions need to be suitable. This means fertile, well-drained soil which is neutral to acid ideally a pH range of 4.5 -6.5. Witch Hazel are a long-lived and hardy but dislike to be in a frost pocket or an exposed area. Hamamelis planted in frost prone area will need protection from frost for the first year or so until established. In addition, until established, Hamamelis Witch Hazel may need watering during dry periods. Once established, trouble-free.

In a sunny area Hamamelis will be more tolerant of other soil conditions but still will not thrive in an exposed area, even though they are described as fully hardy. The flowers on Hamamelis bloom on last year’s wood, which means that Hamamelis should be pruned immediately flowering. Witch Hazel does not require pruning, but it can be pruned to restrict it’s size or remove dead wood. It should be pruned in early Spring after flowering, to reduce size take out 2 or 3 longer branches to a side branch to keep a good shape.

Hamamelis are not the easiest of shrubs to get established, and if you feel your garden conditions are not ideal, but are looking for an early flowering yellow garden shrub, Forsythia is a less adventurous but an easier alternative.

But it isn’t only distillations made from parts of the witch hazel shrub that have mysterious histories.

The Mohegans are also believed to be the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding underground water. In fact the name witch hazel is believed to have come from the Middle English “wicke” for “lively” — the dowsing stick bends toward the ground when water is detected below — and “wych,” an old Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.”

A lot of people poo-poo the idea that a witch hazel stick can actually detect subterranean water. “They say it’s a bunch of witchery,” says Curtis Strong, a fourth-generation witch hazel harvester, better known as a “brush cutter.” A native of East Hampton, Connecticut, Strong’s family has been in the area long enough that his ancestors had land grants from the King of England before America was a nation.

“An Old Timer showed me how it works,” says the 72-year-old Strong, “and I have used it to find water, 20 to 30 wells, and every one of them had water right where I told them it was going to be.”

When he’s not dowsing for water or enjoying retirement from his career as an electrical engineer and farmer, Curt Strong and his sons can be found — at least in the late fall and early winter — in the “boonies” of eastern Connecticut, harvesting the 80 tons of witch hazel they sell each year to American Distilling. The world’s largest manufacturer of witch hazel products happens to be right in their hometown of East Hampton.

***

Naturally an American company whose business revolves around a product with the mystical qualities and long history of witch hazel would need a mystique and interesting story of it own. So it is with American Distilling.

Baptist minister Thomas Newton Dickinson wanted a new venture after making a fortune supplying uniforms to Yankee troops during the Civil War. People in the area often had a stand of witch hazel in their backyard, and a still to cook it down, bottle it up, and sell it. Figuring a consortium of small operators would add up to a big business, Dickinson in 1866 opened a distillery in Essex, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, his sons disliked each other and broke apart the company when their father died and left it to them. Their sons in turn continued the family spat and operated rival Dickinson companies, one in Essex and the other in East Hampton.

Forty years ago, Ed Jackowitz first bought the T.N. Dickinson brand and distillery in East Hampton, then bought the competition, E.E. Dickinson, in Essex. Consolidating operations in East Hampton, Jackowitz hired none other than Curt Strong — wearing his electrical engineer’s cap, rather than his brush cutter’s — to automate the plant.

Decades on, the automated network is a marvel to behold: The hoppers filled with witch hazel chips; conveyers that move the chips to the augurs and into the stills; three deep wells from which water used to steam the chips is triple-filtered, removing minerals and anything else there might be down to the microscopic size of a virus; tanks that purify and then infuse a 14 percent ethyl (grain) alcohol into the witch hazel distillate as a natural preservative; 10 massive 25,000-gallon storage tanks filled with the re-liquified witch hazel that will be shipped in containers ranging from five-gallon jugs to 6,000-gallon tankers to become a key ingredient in cosmetic and first aid products around the world.

Witch Hazel Uses and History

Long after summer’s wildflowers have passed and autumn’s leaves have flamed to glory and fallen, the woods of eastern Canada and the U.S. are still touched with color. Wild witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) waits until late September or October to send out its clusters of fragrant yellow flowers. Short-stalked, with four narrow, strap-shaped petals, the blossoms nestle in the axils of the leaves, to be followed later by woody capsules, each containing two seeds. The seeds don’t ripen until the following summer, when they burst out of their pods so explosively that the shrub is also called snapping hazelnut.

Witch hazel has several other common names, such as striped alder, spotted alder and winter-bloom, which clearly reflect the plant’s appearance or growth habits. The name witch hazel itself, however, deserves further explanation. Most authorities trace the word “witch,” as used here, back through Middle English wych and Anglo-Saxon wice to the Teutonic wik (from which stems our word “weak”), a term applied to various trees and shrubs having pliant branches. One can only speculate as to the relationship of wice to micce — Anglo-Saxon for witch or sorceress — and the fact that pliant branches are preferred by many practitioners of dowsing, an art regarded by some superstitious people as witchcraft. Be that as it may, early American settlers did, in fact, use branches of the shrub for so-called water witching.

It’s not for its role in dowsing but for its purported medicinal properties that witch hazel is best known today. Actually, there’s some doubt as to its efficacy in healing. Still, many an American household has a bottle of witch hazel extract tucked away in the medicine cabinet for application to minor scrapes and bruises. Witch hazel uses range from the delicious to the soothing. The bark or the aromatic, astringent leaves can be used to make a somewhat bitter tea reputed to check internal hemorrhages and dysentery. Applied as a poultice, the tea is good for burns, scalds, insect bites and inflamed swellings. Conjunctivitis and various skin problems are said to respond to this treatment. A balm, made by blending one part bark extract with nine parts simple ointment, is soothing to sores and minor burns.

Witch hazel is a deciduous tree or shrub growing from 5 to 15 feet tall, with grayish bark and scalloped, oval leaves that are about 3 to 5 inches long, three inches wide and lopsided at the base. It prefers moist, sandy loam and partial shade, and is thus found in damp woodlands. It can be propagated by seed — which normally doesn’t germinate until the second spring after sowing — or by layering. There are several species that flower later than H. virginiana, such as H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel), which blooms from January through March, and H. vernalis (Ozark witch hazel), which blooms from December through March. Some species can be propagated by grafting onto H. virginiana stock in late winter or spring, and H. vernalis can be increased by root division.

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Witch Hazel

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What is Witch Hazel?

Witch hazel is a deciduous bush or small tree reaching about 6 m in height found in damp woods throughout most of North America. It has broad, toothed oval leaves, and golden yellow flowers. Brown fruit capsules appear after the flowers. The dried leaves, bark, and twigs are used.

Scientific Name(s)

Hamamelis viginiana

Common Name(s)

Witch hazel is also known as Cortex Hamamelis (dried bark), Folium Hamamelis (dried or fresh leaves), Hamamelis, Hamamelis water, magician’s rod, snapping hazel, spotted alder, tobacco wood, white hazel, andwinter bloom.

What is it used for?

Traditional/Ethnobotanical uses

Witch hazel is a widely known plant with a lengthy history of use in the Americas. The plant, including the crude leaf and bark, is used in a variety of forms; fluid extracts, poultices, and most commonly as witch hazel water. The latter, also known as Hamamelis water or distilled witch hazel extract, is obtained from recently cut, partially dormant twigs. This plant material is soaked in warm water, followed by distillation and the addition of alcohol to the distillate. Witch hazel water is the most commonly found commercial preparation, usually kept in most homes as a topical cooling agent or astringent.

Traditionally, witch hazel was known to native North American people as a treatment for tumors and eye inflammations. It was used internally for bleeding. Other uses include treatment of hemorrhoids, burns, cancers, tuberculosis, colds, and fever. Preparations have been used on the skin for treatment of itching and inflammation, as well as in preparations for eye irritation.

General uses

Witch hazel preparations are commonly used for skin conditions, including diaper rash; however, clinical studies supporting these uses are generally lacking. Witch hazel has been evaluated for antioxidant and antitumor activity.

What is the recommended dosage?

Topical

Steam distillates of Hamamelis are used diluted (1:3 with water) or undiluted, and in semisolid preparations at 5% to 10% of crude drug.

Rectal

Suppositories containing witch hazel contain from 0.1 to 1 g/dose.

Oral

Not recommended.

Contraindications

Internal use is not recommended because of the high tannin content.

Pregnancy/Lactation

Information regarding safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

Interactions

None well documented.

Side Effects

Allergic skin reactions have been reported from topical applications.

Toxicology

Although extracts of witch hazel are available commercially, they shouldn’t be taken internally because the toxicity of the tannins has not been well defined.

1. Witch Hazel. Review of Natural Products. Facts & Comparisons . St. Louis, MO: Wolters Kluwer Health Inc; March 2012.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Medical Disclaimer

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Growing Witch Hazel Shrubs – How To Grow And Care For Witch Hazel

The witch hazel bush (Hamamelis virginiana) is a small tree with fragrant yellow blooms that is a member of the Hamanelidacease family and closely related to the sweet gum. Although witch hazel has many common names, the generic name means “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that this special tree is the only tree in North America to have flowers, ripe fruit and next year’s leaf buds on its branches at the same time.

The witch hazel bush, found in woody areas, is often called water-witch as its branches were once used to search and find underground sources of water and minerals. Witch hazel is commonly used to treat insect bites, sunburn and as a refreshing lotion for after shaving.

How to Grow Witch Hazel Shrubs

Witch hazel shrubs can reach 30 feet high and 15 feet wide at maturity and are often referred to as a tree due to this. The plant sets out pretty yellow flowers that are fragrant and resemble dainty ribbons in the fall.

Growing witch hazel shrubs is a favorite amongst gardeners looking for winter color and fragrance. Many people plant witch hazel in a location where they can enjoy not only its beauty but also its sweet aroma.

Witch hazel shrubs are excellent as a border, mixed hedge or even a specimen plant, if given enough room to spread. Learning how to grow witch hazel is easy since they require very little care.

Witch Hazel Growing Requirements

This attractive bush thrives in USDA planting zones 3-9.

Witch hazel shrubs like moist soil but are adaptable. Even though they are considered an understory plant, they will thrive in part shade to full sun.

Care for witch hazel requires minimal time apart from regular water the first season and pruning only to shape as desired.

Witch hazel is not bothered by any serious pests or disease and will tolerate deer some browsing. Some homeowners, who have a lot of deer, put netting around the base of young shrubs to keep the deer from munching.

Which Witchhazel

In recent years there has been growing excitement around creating “winter interest” in the garden, and for good reason! Perennial gardens have the potential to be ornamental year-round. Many gardeners design their landscapes with winter interest specifically in mind, choosing plants with showy bark, brightly colored stems, evergreen foliage and persistent berries. Even an uncut clump of ornamental grass can be an interesting feature in the winter landscape, especially when the wind plays through the stems. Yet, the winter garden does not need to be devoid of flowers. Many witchhazels are at their very best this time of year.

Most witchhazels bloom in the winter months, from February to March, and produce fragrant and spidery flowers with crinkled, strap-like petals. Depending on species and cultivar, the flower color ranges the full spectrum between pale yellow and red. Witchhazels may be best known for their use in first aid and skin care products, but these shrubs have a lot to offer in the garden. Most species boast vibrant fall foliage as well as late winter blooms. If you don’t have a witchhazel of your own in the garden, look for it in the landscape this month.

Asian and hybrid witchhazels

There are two species of Asian witchhazel that bloom in the winter months. Chinese witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis) is the more ornamental of the two, with abundant yellow flowers that are extremely fragrant. Japanese witchhazel (Hamamelis japonica) is far less common in the landscape but is one of the parent plants of the popular hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia – a cross between Chinese and Japanese witchhazel. H. x intermedia flowers from February to March depending on cultivar. It is an upright-spreading or vase shaped shrub that can grow 15’ to 20’ tall and wide. These plants are hardy to Zone 5, although extreme cold can damage buds.

Don’t forget the natives!

There are two species of witchhazel native to North America. Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) grows wild in the southern and central United States along moist stream banks. Although not quite as showy as H. x intermedia, this hardy plant can survive to Zone 4 and produces vibrant flowers starting in February. There are a variety of cultivars available with flower colors varying from yellow to red.

Our New Hampshire native, common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), is no less deserving of a place in the garden, although it blooms in late fall.

Looking to plant witchhazel? Try one of these plants:

  • H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is a tried and true cultivar introduced by the Arnold Arboretum. This plant blooms later in February and March with bright yellow and highly fragrant flowers.
  • H. x intermedia ‘Diane’ blooms earlier than other cultivars with red flowers that age to copper.
  • H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ features fragrant, coppery flowers and a horizontal growth habit.
  • H. x intermedia ‘Ruby Glow’ has bronze/red flowers and an upright form.
  • H. mollis ‘Pallida’ has pale yellow flowers that are extremely fragrant. It blooms as early as January and February.
  • H. mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ has a spreading habit with large, fragrant and yellow flowers.
  • H. vernalis grows 6’ to 10’ in height and width and is hardy to zone 4. It features peachy orange flowers.
  • H. vernalis ‘Amethyst’ has purple/red flowers with crinkled petals.

In the wild, witchhazels are woodland species that are often found growing in forest edges and meadows. As a result, they will perform well in the garden whether they are planted in full sun or partial shade, although they tend to flower best when planted in full sun. Witchhazels are large, multi-stemmed shrubs that can grow anywhere from 10’ to 20’ high with an equal spread. Growth habit is quite variable between species and cultivars, ranging from upright vase-shaped to broad-spreading. In the garden, witchhazels can be planted singly as specimens or in groups as a screen or hedge.

Witchhazels are very low maintenance with few pest and disease issues. When planted in average, well-drained soils, they are the type of shrub gardeners can ignore and yet still be rewarded with showy fall foliage and late winter blooms.

Although February may seem like a bleak time in the garden, do your best to enjoy what the winter landscape has to offer, and don’t forget to stop and smell the witchhazels!

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