If you live in a temperate climate, the last shrub that you’re likely to see flower each year is the common witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). In the southern part of its native range (it grows wild in Eastern North America from Texas to Quebec), it starts to bloom when the leaves are still green, but in the North, flowering only begins after its leaves – which became a beautiful golden yellow earlier in the fall – drop off! So the shrub is leafless when the curious flowers burst into bloom.
With their four crinkly, ribbon-shaped petals in lemon yellow, they’re not your typical garden flower. They are deliciously fragrant, though, smelling vaguely like lemon peel. It’s a scent that you probably already know, because essence of witch hazel, derived from its young stems and leaves, is widely used in cosmetics and medicines.
The bloom lasts almost two months, from October/November to November/December, depending on the local climate. Curiously, the flowers close up like a ball in cold weather and open again when the frost is gone from the air, which explains how the shrub manages to bloom so late in the season. The seed capsules remain in place all winter and, in fact, only ripen the following fall, when they explode audibly, shooting the seeds up to 25 feet (7,5 m) away.
This is one big shrub, often growing to 30 feet (10 m) tall and nearly as wide in the wild, although it remains more restrained in size (to about 10-15 feet/3-4,5 m in height and diameter) in most garden settings. You can let it take on its normal shrublike appearance, or selectively remove lower limbs to create the effect of a small tree. Pruning is best done in early spring.
In Your Garden
Although the common witch-hazel really is fairly common in its native area, it is not nearly as common in nurseries. You may have to do a bit of searching to find one. And starting with an established, rooted plant remains the best way to go, as it is very slow growing from seed (it will require a cold treatment, notably) and not easy to grow from cuttings. If you have wild ones growing nearby, the easiest thing to do would probably be to dig up a sucker if there are any (some plants produce them, but most don’t). Make sure you get permission from the landowner before doing so.
You can plant common witch-hazel in sun or shade, but it blooms best when it gets at least some sun. It seems to do well in any soil, rich or poor, acid or alkaline, light or heavy, well-drained or out-and-out soggy. (In the wild, it often grows along rivers and in swamps, but constantly moist soil is not necessary for it to thrive). It’s a slow-growing plant, but easy to care for. Essentially, plant it, water it the first summer, then just let it grow.
As for hardiness, it’s pretty tough! In the wild it grows from USDA zones 3 to 9 (AgCan zones 4 to 9) and will adapt to the same conditions in your garden.
Not So Witchy
The name witch-hazel has nothing to do with actual witches. Instead, it comes from the Old English word “wiche” for bendable. This refers to its popular use as a divining rod, a technique going back to the 17th century. That’s because traditionally dowsers used forked witch-hazel twigs to find underground springs. The twig would “bend down” when held over an underground source of water, showing where to dig the well. I’ll let you decide whether you believe in diving rods or not, but there are still dowsers today and many still use witch-hazel twigs.
As for the “hazel” part, that’s much more obvious. Witch-hazel leaves look a lot like hazel leaves (Corylus spp.), even though the two shrubs are not in the same family.
Common witch-hazel is the only Hamamelis species that blooms in the fall. All other species (the best known are H. vernalis, H. japonica and H. mollis, as well as the hybrid species H. x intermedia) are winter-bloomers, flowering between January and March, depending on the climate. They are slightly less hardy than common witch-hazel (USDA zone 5/AgCan zone 6 is about as cold as these species will take), but where they do grow, they can be spectacular. I’ve seen some outstanding displays in Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, notably, in full bloom in early March.
There are many cultivars of winter-blooming witch-hazels, with yellow, orange or red flowers. I’ll let you take your pick… but right now I’m enjoying the stunning blooms of my common witch-hazel, starring in my garden in late October.