American witch-hazel is one of the few witch-hazels that blooms in the fall rather than the spring. Photo: kiefernursery.com
Question: My landscaper planted an American witch-hazel at the end of a major relandscaping project in my garden last July. Since I had to water the new lawn every other day, it received a lot of water and I think the shrub got a bit overwatered, because it didn’t survive. However, my landscaper agreed to replace it with a new one this spring.
Do you have any specific advice for making sure this new witch-hazel survives? Fertilizer, watering, planting advice, type of soil, etc.? I just love this shrub with its late flowers and bewitching scent and want to make sure I succeed this time!
Answer: I think you’re right about the overwatering, as American witch-hazel is not considered in any way difficult to grow. But it’s hard to meet the considerable water requirements of a freshly installed lawn without harming the surrounding plants at least a little, and freshly installed plants are just a bit more fragile than others. So, essentially, you were unlucky … but, with the lawn now well established, there’s no reason to be very concerned about this spring’s planting.
The American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is not very particular about its needs. Just water it normally, that is, soak the root area when the soil feels dry to the touch, then wait until the soil is to dry out again before watering again. That way, it should settle in perfectly. By the second year, it should need practically no care whatsoever, except watering during periods of extreme drought.
Witch hazel adapts just about every soil type: rich to poor, moist to relatively dry, and acidic to neutral. However, it won’t tolerate saline soils nor very compacted ones. It’s even adapted to both sun and shade: how many other shrubs are that versatile? In the wild, it grows from southern Canada to northern Florida, so shows a considerable hardiness range: USDA zones 3 to 8; AgCan zones 4b to 8, although it is a temperate climate plant and won’t do well in areas with very mild winters.
There is nothing special to emphasize about planting a witch-hazel compared to any other shrub. Just prepare a hole the same depth as the root ball and three times as wide, center the plant inside and backfill the hole with the soil you removed. Amending the soil is not recommended. Gently tamp the soil down and water thoroughly. Cover the areas with 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) of the mulch of your choice in order to moderate soil temperatures and reduce evaporation. It will need little if any fertilizer: as the mulch breaks down, it will supply any minerals necessary. Just top the mulch up as necessary (some mulches decompose more quickly than others).
Finally, American witch-hazel being a very large shrub, even a small tree, from 11 to 20 feet (3.5 to 6 m high and wide), you might find it necessary to prune it from time to time to keep it under control. This is best done in late fall after flowering.
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!
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.
The curious flowers seen close up.
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
A forked witch-hazel twig was once used as a divining rod.
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.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diana’
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.