Witch Hazel Plants in Landscaping

22 March 2022

Young Witch Hazel Tree” by Rachel Ford James is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Autumn is turning to winter. All the colorful leaves have pretty much turned brown and fallen. When you are looking at that gray almost-winter sky and most of the trees are bare, you will notice bright yellow flowers. These are part of witch hazel plants. In New York you will see the blooms emerge anywhere from mid October to early November. Regional variations can include gold or red, but yellow is still the predominant color. These flowers smell a bit citrusy. However, if you don’t detect any fragrance, it could be an Asian hybrid.

American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) is native from Nova Scotia to Florida and from the East Coast to a line from the Great Lakes through Eastern Texas.

This is considered a small tree that will reach 20 or more feet tall or as a shrub that will top out at 15 feet. It has branches that arch and form dense clumps. It is often used as a windbreak. It is slow to start and grow but worth the final product.

They grow from seeds planted in pots and after about two or three years, they are ready to be transplanted. The flowering will not begin until the plant is at least six years old. As mentioned, it is slow to start but oh, what a dream it is to enjoy those late autumn blooms. The flowers have four very slender petals that range from cream to bright yellow and are from one-half to three-quarters inch long. The leaves are dark green on top and paler on the reverse side and will grow from two to six inches in length. This tree is pollinated by a moth.

witch hazel treatment
“Humphreys’ Witch Hazel Oil, ointment and liniment combined (front)” by Boston Public Library is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Another interesting factoid is that the plant produces flowers, ripe fruit, and next year’s leaf buds all at the same time. The flowers described previously are cold tolerant and can handle several days of below freezing temperatures. The fruit is a small, dry capsule that distributes seeds that will spray as far away as 30 feet. These are good food sources for birds, so not many of them propagate into new growth, which makes it non-invasive. However, if you don’t want the area to develop into a hedge, you may want to consider regular thinning. The seed capsules develop from last year’s flowers and they need to overwinter to be viable.

Native Americans used its forked limbs to locate underground water sources. This “device” is called a dowsing rod or divining rod. As the Europeans arrived and saw this they called it “wicke” (lively) or “wych” (bend). Dowsing is actually successful and was widely used into the 20th century.

The bark and roots of the plant are processed for their tannins, which are natural remedies for inflammation and may contain some antibacterial elements. It comes in liquid form. Check with your medical provider before using it. Not all applications have been fully tested to prove effectiveness. If it has been on the shelf too long, it can go bad so be sure to check the expiration date before using this product.

So, if you are planning a change in your current landscape, you might want to talk with your local nursery or landscaping company about the availability of witch hazel.

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