The fall bloom of American witch-hazel. Photo: mailordernatives.com
More and more gardeners in temperate climates are tuned in to the beauties of fall flowers, but most of these are perennials, bulbs and fall-flowering grasses: chrysanthemums, colchicums, aconites, miscanthus, etc. Fall-flowering shrubs are not that well known.
Okay, there are some shrubs that bloom in the fall, but most are holdovers from the summer garden. For example, the dense clusters of flowers of the peegee hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), white at first, have by fall turned pink, but will hold on right through the fall and even, having dried to beige, all winter, while there are many rose bushes that rebloom at the end of the season, although not so heavily as in early summer.
Of course, there is seven sons flower (Heptacodium miconioides), a spectacular true fall bloomer, but it remains little known. However, there is also a shrub native to Eastern North America that flowers in the fall … and this is not just the tail end of summer bloom, but a true fall flowering, one that will last until nearly Christmas: the American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
A Most Curious Blossom
It doesn’t seem logical for a shrub to start blooming in late September and continue into December, at least, not in a cold climate. I mean, there is frost in dem der months, killing frost. Most flowers that dare to bloom late will be literally frosted to death sooner or later. But not the witch-hazel. Its flowers have the curious capacity to close when it’s cold and reopen when the temperature warms up. The four petals of each witch-hazel blossom expand when it’s “warm” (above freezing), but curl up into a ball to protect themselves when temperatures drop much below freezing. Even after a week of serious cold, they’ll still wake up and bloom as soon as temperatures get above freezing again.
The flowers have a curious appearance, reminiscent of no other: the pale yellow petals are straplike, a bit crumpled and half-dangle like a cluster of yellow spiders. They also give off a subtle, yet pleasant scent that you may already know, as witch-hazel has been used as a herbal remedy for generations. More recently, witch-hazel-scented beauty products have entered the market in a huge way. Besides, it’s not just the flowers that are fragrant, but even the crumpled leaves and crushed stems have the same intriguing, beguiling scent.
Origin of a Witchy Name
I had always assumed the name witch-hazel was somehow due to the shrub’s “magical” healing powers, as my grandmother used apply to a product called Pond’s Extract, derived from witch-hazel, from an ancient bottle with a brown label, to any bruise, bump, cut or sprain we children had. That’s why witch-hazel always smells medicinal to me, even the flowers and crushed leaves.
But I was wrong about the origin of the name. Apparently, witch-hazel comes from the use of the forked twigs of the shrub as a divining rod. The tip of the rod was supposed to bend toward the ground when water is detected below … and “wych” is an old Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.”
Since the witch-hazel has certain similar physical traits to hazels (Corylus spp.), although they are in fact not related (the witch-hazel is in its own little family, the Hamamelidaceae, while the hazel is in the Betulaceae, the birch family), early European settlers in North America began calling this new shrub “wych hazel,” which was eventually to become “witch-hazel.”
Very Late in Producing Seed
Witch-hazel flowers so late that its seeds don’t have time to ripen before winter. Instead, and this is unique among cold climate shrubs, the seed capsules overwinter on the plant to ripen the following fall. Indeed, at about the same time as the witch-hazel flowers, it releases the seeds resulting from the flowers of the previous year. It’s not uncommon to find tropical plants whose seeds take a year to mature or even more, but witch-hazel is the only cold climate shrub to do so.
The result is that the flowers and the fruits ripen at the same time. Moreover, this is the meaning of the name Hamamelis which comes from the Greek hama for simultaneous and melon for fruit.
When the woody capsules are finally ripe, the capsules open explosively, shooting the seeds up to 33 feet (10 m) from the mother plant. I suspect they must float too, as witch-hazel is often found on stream banks.
A Large Shrub
Witch-hazel is a large somewhat suckering shrub that can even grow into a small tree over time. It easily reaches 11 feet (3.5 m) in height and diameter and sometimes up to 20 feet (6 m). Its branches with smooth gray bark are fairly open and grow in a zigzag pattern, which makes for a lovely winter appeal. In summer, its aromatic, irregularly shaped green leaves are a minor attraction. They turn yellow in the fall, dropping off as the shrub blooms.
In fact, if there is a downside to the witch-hazel as a garden plant, it’s that not all of its leaves fall off in time to reveal the splendor of its flowers. Indeed, often the leaves turn brown and still cling to the shrub until late fall, partially hiding the bloom. Yet other specimens drop their leaves early and are essentially bare of foliage within two weeks of the start of flowering. It would be interesting to find and multiply clones whose leaves drop early: they would surely be very popular on the market.
To my knowledge, there is only one cultivar of American witch-hazel being offered: ‘Little Suzie’, chosen for its smaller size (less than 5 feet/1.5 m in height) and the buttery yellow coloration of its fall leaves.
The Other Witch-hazels
There are four other natural species of witch-hazel, H. japonica, H. mollis, H. ovalis and H. vernalis, the first two being of Asian origin and the last two from the southeastern United States. There is also a hybrid species, H. × intermedia, the result of crosses between H. japonica and H. mollis. It offers the widest range of flower colors.
All, curiously, are winter flowering. Yes, they flower in February or March, even January in some climates, but only in areas with relatively mild winters. In fact, their yellow, orange or red bloom is the main attraction of these witch-hazels, because they bloom so early in the spring that they are often the first shrubs to blossom. Given the earliness of the blooms, they are frequently covered in snow (I’ve seen them in that state at Longwood Gardens: stunning!), but, as with the American witch-hazel, when temperatures drop much below freezing, the petals curl up and protect the flower from the cold, then flowering resumes when things warm up again.
Winter-flowering witch-hazels are very popular in European and American gardens in areas with moderately mild winters, but their limited hardiness (hardiness zones 6–8) seriously restricts their use in Canada and the northern states.
Easy to Grow
Witch-hazel is native to eastern North America: the northern limit of its natural range is actually where I live, in Québec City, Canada. In the wild, it often grows in humid environments and even on the water’s edge, but it easily adapts to “normal” garden conditions. However, avoid really arid locations. As for the soils, it’s easy to accommodate: it seems to grow equally well in rich and poor soils and acidic to neutral ones, although avoid alkaline soils. It tolerates shade, but does best in partial shade to sun. It’s hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8 (AgCan zones 4 to 8).
No pruning is necessary, but you may want to prune to control its growth. If so, the best time to do so is in very late fall, after flowering, although you can remove suckers at any season. If you want to turn your witch-hazel into a small tree, you can also remove the lower branches after it reaches a decent height. Otherwise, it’s a trouble-free shrub, not seeming too prone to serious insect or disease problems, that will grow slowly but steadily in just about any garden.
Deer do nibble modestly on the branches in winter, but witch-hazel is adapted to deer browsing and recovers quickly, in time to bloom again the next fall. Some gardeners even find deer pruning creates a denser, more attractive shrub!
While common witch-hazel is not exactly rare in nurseries, it’s not a common shrub either. In North America, you’d probably do best to check out nurseries that specialize in native shrubs first. Or ask your favorite local garden center to order one for you for next spring (it can be planted in any season). Also, if you know someone who has witch-hazel in their garden, it’s relatively easy to multiply by cuttings taken in the spring.
American witch-hazel: original and fragrant, it awaits your discovery!