Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Common Witchhazel, Common Witch Hazel, Southern Witch Hazel Witch Haze,l Witch-Hazel

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Hamamelis virginiana, known as witch-hazel, common witch-hazel, American witch-hazel and beadwood, is a species of flowering shrub native to eastern North America, from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota, and south to central Florida to eastern Texas.

Hamamelis virginiana is a small, deciduous tree or shrub growing up to 6 m (rarely to 10 m) tall, often with a dense cluster of stems from its base. The bark is light brown, smooth, scaly, inner bark reddish purple. The branchlets are pubescent at first, later smooth, light orange brown, marked with occasional white dots, finally dark or reddish brown. 

The foliage buds are acute, slightly falcate, downy, light brown. The leaves are oval, 3.7–16.7 cm (1+7⁄16–6+9⁄16 in) long and 2.5–13 cm (1–5+1⁄8 in) broad, oblique at the base, acute or rounded at the apex, with a wavy-toothed or shallowly lobed margin, and a short, stout petiole 6–15 mm (0.24–0.59 in) long; the midrib is more or less hairy, stout, with six to seven pairs of primary veins. The young leaves open involute, covered with stellate rusty down; when full grown, they are dark green above, and paler beneath. In fall, they turn yellow with rusty spots. The leaf stipules are lanceolate, acute; they fall soon after the leaf expands.

The flowers are pale to bright yellow, rarely orange or reddish, with four ribbon-shaped petals 1–2 cm (1⁄2–3⁄4 in) long and four short stamens, and grow in clusters; flowering begins in about mid-fall and continues until late fall. The floral calyx is imbricate in bud, deeply four-parted, very downy, and orange brown within. Two or three bracelets appear at base. The fruit is a hard woody capsule 10–14 mm (0.39–0.55 in) long, which splits explosively at the apex at maturity one year after pollination, ejecting the two shiny black seeds up to 10 m (33 ft) distant from the parent plant.

Hamamelis virginiana can be distinguished from the related Hamamelis vernalis by its flowering in fall, not winter.

Hamamelis virginiana flowers from late September to late November, occasionally in December. The pollinated ovary, protected by a persistent calyx, enters a resting state during the winter months. Fertilization of the ovary is delayed until the following spring, usually about the middle of May, which is 5–7 months after pollination. The fruits develop over the course of the growing season, reaching maturity in late August. As the ripe fruit dries and dehisces, the seeds are ballistically ejected, typically by late October. The empty seed pod remains attached to the plant, sometimes for months. The seeds lie on the ground for two winters before sprouting.

Hamamelis virginiana is a pollinator plant that attracts moths and supports 62 species of caterpillars.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Full to partial sun is ideal for witch hazel plants. Though they usually prefer full sun, partial shade is best in hot climates with intense afternoon sunshine.

Temperature and Humidity

Witch hazel is unique in that it flowers during the cold winter months. It is tolerant of a wide range of conditions from USDA zones 3 to 9, thriving in both cold and hot temperatures. Moderate humidity levels are preferred. Witch hazel does not do well in dry, arid conditions, but too much moisture can encourage fungal problems, such as powdery mildew. 

Watering

This shrub prefers consistent moisture but does not do well in soggy soil. Regular watering is essential for young, established plants. Once established, natural rainfall should provide enough water for witch hazel shrubs. However, be sure to water these plants whenever there is a drought. If the top of the soil feels dry to the touch, it may be time for additional water.

Soil

Witch hazel likes rich, loamy, moist soil conditions but is quite hardy and can adapt to differing soils. These plants can acclimate to acidic and alkaline soil pH levels, although acidic to neutral soil is best.

Good drainage and moist conditions are essential for healthy witch hazel plants. Try adding a layer of mulch on top of the soil to retain moisture.

Fertilizing

Adding compost to the soil balances the moisture retention and draining ability and adds loads of nutrients to the soil, resulting in rich, loamy soil that is ideal for witch hazel. Throughout the summer, well-balanced, liquid fertilizer can be added monthly for extra nutrients.

Planting Instructions

Pick a location for witch hazel that gets full sun or some shade protection in regions with sweltering hot summers. Witch hazels must be separated by 10 to 12 feet since their full growth spread is about that width. You can direct sow and plant seeds in the ground about 1/4-inch deep in the fall. Germination usually takes two years if direct sowing and the success rate is lower than starting them indoors.

Otherwise, start the seed in containers indoors, but you will need to scarify and stratify the seeds, forcing warm (120 days) and cold cycles (90 days) to speed up the process. The process takes at least seven months to prepare the seeds for indoor sowing and another year before germination occurs.

Pruning

Pruning is not required, but the occasional trim-up can help maintain a clean shape and encourage blooming. Prune after the shrub is blooming to promote next year’s bud growth. Remove suckering offshoots at the base to keep this plant clean and tidy.  

Witch hazel branches can also be trimmed off right before blooming and brought indoors to bloom as cut stems. Give the cut end a diagonal slice at the bottom and place it in warm filtered water.

Propagation

Witch hazel is often propagated from seed, but this process requires a lot of patience. Witch hazel seeds can take up to two years before they germinate. To get seeds started, they must experience the heat and cold of both winter and summer. You can plant these outdoors or mimic these conditions indoors.

  • Plant freshly harvested seeds in moist soil and lightly cover them with soil. Place the seed in a warm area at around 85 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three months. 
  • Move the seed to the refrigerator and keep it chilled for three months. Be sure to keep the soil moist.  
  • After this, move the seed to a warm area again. You can place it outdoors if the temperatures stay around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Germination should occur in another two or three months. The plant should flower in about six years. Keep it in a shady location, then slowly acclimate the seedling to more sun during the summer.

The best method for propagating witch hazel is from seed. Stem cuttings are unreliable and very hard to root; this method is rarely met with success. You can also remove suckers that emerge at the ground level near the central stem with an independent root system. Replant them to propagate a new plant. Here’s how:

  • You’ll need a hand shovel to dig out the sucker as soon as the ground is workable in the early spring before new growth emerges.
  • Dig around the sucker to pull up as much of its individual root system as possible. Leave the parent’s root system alone.
  • Replant the sucker and its root system in a new location more than 10 feet from the parent plant.

Potting and Repotting 

Witch hazel can be grown in a pot, though it will eventually need to be planted in the ground if you want the plant to reach its full height. Container-kept witch hazel shrubs are perfect for smaller garden spaces and can be moved during the summer to make room for summer-blooming plants.

Once the witch hazel outgrows its pot, move it to a larger pot size or plant it in the ground. Try not to disturb the roots when doing this, as witch hazel does not handle transplanting well. It is best to do this in the spring.  

Overwintering 

With its unique winter flowers, witch hazel thrives in the cold winter months. To care for witch hazel throughout the winter, occasionally check the plant for any damage caused by rabbits or deer. If damage occurs, a protective barrier can be placed around the plant, such as chicken wire or hardware cloth. 

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

These shrubs are resistant to most pests and diseases. Deer, aphids, leaf spots, or powdery mildew may attack witch hazel shrubs, but they do not generally cause extensive damage.  

Cone gall aphids (Hormaphis hamamelidis) and spiny leaf gall aphids (Hamamelistes spinosus) cause unsightly galls on the leaves but are usually not a significant problem. You can leave it alone or treat the leaves with horticultural oil to stop the insect’s egg life cycle.

Common Problems 

Witch hazel is an easy plant to care for; it’s low-maintenance once established. It only needs occasional watering and pruning. But, it still needs monitoring of its leaves and stems, checking for bugs, water levels, and suckering.

Leaves Turning Brown in Summer

If witch hazel leaves turn brown in summer, it could indicate insufficient water, drying winds, or fungal disease. Drying winds are caused by a period of moist weather quickly followed by bright sun and dry winds. By giving the plant more water, you can help repair the damage of inadequate water or drying winds. If stems appear to have died, prune the dead or dying limbs.

However, the fungal condition is caused by just the opposite—too much water and soggy roots. To correct saturated soil, add a layer of coarse sand to the soil above the plant’s roots to slow down wet soil conditions.

Remove Suckers

Witch hazels tend to sucker. Dig suckers from the base of the plant as soon as you can work the soil in the spring. Take care to keep the parent root system intact. You can plant the suckers elsewhere to create new plants.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Native Americans produced witch hazel extract by boiling the stems of the shrub and producing a decoction, which was used to treat swellings, inflammations, and tumors. Early Puritan settlers in New England adopted this remedy from the natives, and its use became widely established in the United States.

An extract of the plant is used in the astringent witch hazel.

  1. virginiana produces a specific kind of tannins called hamamelitannins. One of those substances displays a specific cytotoxic activity against colon cancer cells.

The bark and leaves were used by Native Americans in the treatment of external inflammations. Pond’s Extract was a popular distillation of the bark in dilute alcohol.

The wood is light reddish brown, sapwood nearly white; heavy, hard, close-grained, with a density of 0.68.

The forked twigs of witch-hazel are preferred as divining rods.

Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) Details

Common name Common Witchhazel, Common Witch Hazel, Southern Witch Hazel Witch Haze,l Witch-Hazel
Botanical name Hamamelis virginiana
Plant type Edible
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 15 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Width 15 ft. 0 in. - 30 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Cream/Tan
Leaf color Brown/Copper