Witch hazel lends color long into De­cem­ber

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - Once a month, the OSU Ex­ten­sion Mas­ter Gar­dener’s Of­fice of Franklin County pro­files a plant that oc­curs nat­u­rally in cen­tral Ohio.

Yes, the fall leaf ex­trav­a­ganza is al­most over and there is lit­tle color left to ad­mire.

But don’t de­spair. There is one plant still flow­er­ing in the woods, or in your lo­cal ar­bore­tum or gar­den: the Amer­i­can witch hazel (‘Ha­mamelis vir­gini­ana’) cov­ered in fra­grant, yel­low blooms. Call it a fear­less rebel or a late bloomer, this woody plant pro­vides one last hur­rah be­fore the sea­son truly ends.

The Amer­i­can witch hazel was one of the first North Amer­i­can plants to be in­tro­duced to Europe by the early plant hunters. Un­like the United States, where it is sel­dom seen in home gar­dens, in Europe it has been a hor­ti­cul­tural fa­vorite since its in­tro­duc­tion.

The Amer­i­can witch hazel is a slow­grow­ing, de­cid­u­ous shrub or small tree that forms the un­der­story of the woods of eastern North Amer­ica. It is of­ten found grow­ing on wood­land slopes or moist val­ley bot­toms.

From its shal­low root sys­tem arise mul­ti­ple stems that can grow to a height of 15 to 25 feet.

The at­trac­tive bark cov­er­ing the stems or branches is thin, gray, smooth, and some­times spot­ted. Its branches have a spread­ing form that are of­ten zigzag and crooked.

The oval-shaped, toothed leaves are a beau­ti­ful green in the summer and turn to a bril­liant yel­low in fall. These deeply veined leaves look sim­i­lar to the leaves of the hazel nut tree and might ex­plain the ori­gin of Amer­i­can witch hazel. a part of its com­mon name. The word “witch” is de­rived from the Old English word “wych,” mean­ing to bend — a ref­er­ence to its crooked, forked branches that were of­ten used by the Na­tive Amer­i­cans and early set­tlers as dows­ing rods to search for water.

The mildly fra­grant, yel­low flow­ers of witch hazel bloom any­where from late Septem­ber to Novem­ber and linger un­til De­cem­ber.

It is a unique flower that has four, thin, thread­like petals and is per­haps best-de­scribed in the words of the poet El­iz­a­beth Ak­ers Allen as “…crimped and curl­ing bloom of shred­ded gold.”

Uses

Witch hazel is a name fa­mil­iar to many peo­ple as it has been an in­te­gral part of our cos­met­ics, toi­letry and hy­giene prod­ucts for a long time. The Na­tive Amer­i­cans rec­og­nized the plant’s as­trin­gent prop­er­ties and de­rived a fra­grant ex­tract by boil­ing the tan­nin­rich leaves, bark and twigs. The ex­tract was used to top­i­cally treat skin in­flam­ma­tions, sun burn, in­sect bites, varicose veins, sore mus­cles and pink eye.

The ex­tract quickly be­came a part of the herbal cor­nu­copia of the early set­tlers.

In 1860, witch hazel ex­tract was first pro­duced com­mer­cially in Con­necti­cut by a Bap­tist min­is­ter, Thomas Dick­en­son. Since then, this na­tive plant remedy has evolved into a big busi­ness.

In the gar­den, it can be planted as a hedge, screen or stand-alone spec­i­men. The un­usual time of its flow­er­ing, the unique flow­ers, the beau­ti­ful fo­liage, its smooth gray bark, at­trac­tive branch­ing habit and rounded canopy all pro­vide year­long in­ter­est.

Grow­ing re­quire­ments

Har­di­ness Zones: 3 to 8 Sun: par­tial shade un­der­story; if grown in full sun, it blooms more but leaves tend to get sun scorched

Water: prefers moist soil, water in the summer months

Soil: prefers acidic soils rich in or­ganic mat­ter, but will tol­er­ate clays

Main­te­nance: re­move suck­ers; main­tain de­sired height by prun­ing in spring

Prop­a­ga­tion: from cut­tings, seeds re­quire warm and cold strat­i­fi­ca­tion to ger­mi­nate

Cul­ti­vars

Sev­eral cul­ti­vars have been de­vel­oped based on plant size, leaf col­oration and flower color. These in­clude:

• Lit­tle Susie, a dwarf cul­ti­var

• Green Thumb and Lemon Lime cul­ti­vars with var­ie­gated leaves

• Phan­tasm, a dark­yel­low-flow­er­ing cul­ti­var

• Mo­honk Red, a red­flow­er­ing cul­ti­var

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