Witch hazel lends color long into December
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.”
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.
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
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