As the sun dips lower in the sky and Mother Nature prepares for a winter nap, the witch hazels begin to bloom.
Native to the woodland understory of the eastern United States, the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is hardy in USDA Zones 3-8. Its spice-scented yellow flowers begin blooming in October and November, and some cultivars bloom into March.
The common witch hazel is the only Pennsylvania shrub or tree to bloom in late autumn. Often classified as a shrub because of its multiple stems, it can grow 15-20 (rarely 30) feet in height with a spreading vase shape. It is best used as a small tree in the landscape, sited in partial shade near a home or in a shrub border.
Witch hazel has a long history of medicinal use. Native Americans used the leaves and bark as a poultice or tea to reduce inflammation and fever. Today, witch hazel is used in cosmetics, and a lotion of the extract and alcohol is marketed as a first aid for abrasions and skin irritations.
Forked stems of this plant have been used as "divining rods," too. The stems are said to dip down when held over underground water, thereby locating the site of a future well, a practice known as "water witching."
Witch hazel is a genus of deciduous slow-growing small trees and shrubs native to Asia, the eastern United States and Mexico. There are five species and nearly 100 cultivars, all of which are multi-stemmed. Most are upright with broad-spreading, open canopies and have great value in lighting up an otherwise drab, dormant landscape.
Depending on the species or cultivar, they have bright yellow, apricot to orange or red flowers that last about one month. Each bloom has four wispy petals radiating outward. The petals vary in length according to species. Individual flowers may not be showy, yet because they are arranged in clusters by the hundreds along branches and twigs, their effect is mesmerizing.
Witch hazels need a chilling time below 45 degrees before they flower and may bloom earlier in a mild winter. Their flowers are adapted to winter cold, averting freeze damage by closing when temperatures drop.
They thrive in well-drained organic-rich acidic soil. They prefer partial shade but can tolerate full sun if they receive adequate water, especially during periods of drought. Plants grown in full sun will exhibit denser foliage and flower more heavily than those grown in shade.
Another U.S. native, vernal witch hazel (vernalis), is hardy in USDA Zones 4-8 and grows along stream banks in Missouri and Arkansas. Its yellow to reddish and deeply fragrant flowers are the smallest but most profuse of all the witch hazels. Flowers bloom in January, sometimes by Christmas in mild winters. More shrubby that other species and maturing at 6 to 10 feet in height, vernal witch hazel colonizes and, with its attractive golden fall foliage, can be massed as a screen or unpruned hedge.
There are two Asian witch hazel species, both hardy in USDA Zones 5-8, that bloom in February-March. They include Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis) and Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica). Both have classic spidery witch hazel flowers, but H. mollis is the most fragrant witch hazel, while H. japonica boasts superb fall foliage. These species have been bred with our native witch hazels to create plants that add greatly to the home landscape. In the 1940s, crosses or hybrids of the Asian species, found in Boston's Arnold Arboretum and in Europe, were classified as a separate species, Hamamelis xintermedia (USDA Zones 5-8).
Whether you're choosing a witch hazel for fragrance, floral impact or fall foliage, there are cultivars suited for each use. Cultivars have also been selected for losing their leaves before the flowers appear, one of the less desired traits of native species. Some recommended cultivars include:
•'Arnold Promise': vase-shaped, with fragrant light yellow, late-winter blooms, and red and yellow fall color. Grows 15-20 feet tall and 10-12 feet wide. Introduced by the Arnold Arboretum.
• 'Jelena': Belgian cultivar, more horizontal in habit with early to midwinter copper-orange flowers and good orange-red fall foliage. Grows 15 feet tall and wide.
• 'Diane': Belgian cultivar, late winter bloom of deep red flowers fading to copper and vivid red, yellow and orange fall color. Grows 10 feet tall and wide.
• 'Pallida': Early flowering with soft yellow, very fragrant blooms and yellow fall color. An RHS selection, grows 8 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
• 'New Year's Gold' and 'Orange Sunrise': Both cultivars of H. vernalis that lose their leaves before they flower in the fall.
Witch hazels are perfect for a modest-sized garden and their tree-like habit allows for underplanting of choice groundcovers, bulbs and shade-loving perennials. Be sure to site them where you can enjoy their flowers from inside a warm house or up close in a part of the garden where you can appreciate their subtle beauty. Whether used as a specimen or grouped for effect, low-maintenance witch hazels are a delight in the fall and winter landscape and a promise that spring will come again.
Elise Ford is a Penn State master gardener. Columns by master gardeners sometimes appear in place of the Garden Q&A by Sandy Feather, a Penn State Extension educator.