Witch Hazel – October Wildflower of the Month

Witch Hazel

Hamamelis virginiana. Usually grown for its flowers, this low-branching shrub or small tree can furnish year-round interest.

The plant is in bloom from late fall and into winter, October through December. Fragrant bright yellow flowers, each with four crinkly, ribbon-shaped petals, grow in clusters close to the stem. 

Broad, slightly pointed dark green leaves cover the branches throughout the summer, turning a brilliant gold in the fall.  In late summer the leaves often show small triangular growths, created by the witch hazel cone gall aphid.  Although their presence on leaves suggests some type of disturbance, galls usually do not harm their hosts.

In late winter the flowers are replaced by greenish dry fruits (capsules) that become woody with age, maturing to light brown.  These seed capsules mature in two years, splitting open the following fall to release black seeds over some distance.

Witch Hazel likes rich, acid soil and moist to dry drainage in full sun to part shade.   Easy to grow in the home landscape, this 15-20-foot shrub can be grown as a hedge, foundation planting, and in a rain garden.

There are only 5 species worldwide of Hamamelis, 3 native to North America, one in Japan, and one in China. H. virginiana is common in the mountains and Piedmont of Virginia, infrequent naturally in the Coastal Plain and throughout eastern U.S. and Canada.  This rootstock of this species is often used when grafting cultivars of Asian origin. The Chinese Witch Hazel (H. mollis) is widely sold noted for its larger yellow flowers and stronger fragrance.  Other cultivars are available in the nursery trade; many are hybrids between the two Asian species and/or Ozark Witch Hazel (H. vernalis).

A widely used medicinal herb, the North American Indians used Witch Hazel bark to heal wounds, treat tumours and for eye problems.  The bark is astringent and hemostatic; a homeopathic remedy is made from fresh bark and used to treat nosebleeds, hemorrhoids and varicose veins.  The bottled Witch Hazel is a steam distillate, used as an external application to bruises, sore muscles, and inflammations.

Seeds are eaten by ruffed grouse and squirrels.  Witch Hazel is pollinated by winter moths that fly when temperatures are above freezing.  Leaf litter protects the moths during cold nights.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Photo: American Beauty-berry (Hamamelis virginiana) taken by Helen Hamilton