University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry,
University of Vermont
Witchhazels are landscape shrubs
deserving of wider use, attractive for their nice habit, fall foliage and long-blooming
fragrant flowers. In fact, they are the
earliest and latest shrubs to flower during the season. While
the native species is the most hardy, its yellow-orange fall flowers are not as
attractive as those with more colorful yellow, orange or red flowers in
spring. They’re easy to grow, require
little maintenance, and have few if any pests and problems.
If you haven’t heard of these
shrubs, you may have heard of the medicinal products made from them now, and
originally by Native Americans. The
extract from leaves and bark is used for sores and bruises. The distilled oil is used in skin care
products for a range of purposes, from aftershave to skin ailments such as
psoriasis and eczema, to insect bites and poison ivy rashes. You will find it in many hemorrhoid
This genus (Hamamelis) is the main member of the Witchhazel family. The name comes from an Old English word for
pliant or bendable branches. Or the
“witch” may be related to the centuries old use of stems as divining rods in
dowsing for water. They’re not closely
related to the true hazels (Corylus)
that bear the nuts of the same name.
Witchhazels are deeply rooted,
multi-stemmed shrubs with a rounded to irregular upright growth habit. They often have an attractive branching
structure. These medium to large shrubs
reach 6 to 12 feet high or more. They spread
(they’re not aggressive spreaders) to eventually form large clumps 12 to 15
feet across. Leaves are rounded to
elongated, 2 to 5 inches long. Flowers
are rather unique, consisting of four narrow, strap-like petals under an inch
long, in various
colors and often twisted. Blooms appear either
in spring or fall, depending on selection, and last 4 weeks or more. They have an elusive fruity to spicy
In nature, witchhazels grow along
the edges of woods, so are fine in part shade (4 to 6 hours of direct sun a
day). They will grow in full sun as
well, where they’ll be more dense, rounded, and with more flowers. They won’t grow well in deep shade.
Although adaptable to a range of
soils, they don’t grow well in ones that are too wet or prone to dry out
frequently. Add lots of peat moss or
organic matter when planting. Water well
and deeply when the top 2 inches of soil dries out, particularly in the first
two years after planting. Fertilize with
product of your choice each spring, or simply top dress around plants with an
inch of compost.
Witchhazels are good choices for
naturalistic landscapes with plants such as viburnums, winterberries, redosier
dogwood, serviceberries, or foamflowers underneath. They make a nice contrast to evergreen
shrubs. Being large, consider them for
backs of borders, or used singly as accent plants. In sun, where they become dense, they make
good screens or informal hedges. If you
want to enjoy the subtle fragrance and beauty of the flowers, plant witchhazels
near walks or patios. If used near
buildings, make sure they’ll have enough room to grow over time.
Cut branches of witchhazels during
late winter to “force” into bloom indoors in one to two weeks. Place the base of branches in warm water,
changing the water every day or two.
Keep them in a cool area, out of sun, with a clear bag over branches until
flowering to keep the humidity high. If
branches are already beginning to bloom when cut, place in warm water
containing flower preservative (from floral shops). These are often best used in simple or
The native common witchhazel (H. virginiana) has yellow flowers in
October when the golden leaves begin falling, so are really only seen once all
leaves are off. ‘Harvest Moon’ is a
from breeder Richard Jaynes of Connecticut, with lemon-yellow flowers that
appear a couple weeks later, once leaves have fallen, so are better
appreciated. Flowers of this eastern
U.S. native are hardy through USDA zone 4 (to -30 degrees F). This plant can become one of the largest in
this genus, reaching 20 feet tall and wide with an open, spreading habit.
The vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), native to the Midwest and
South, is very early spring blooming with a pungent fragrance. The yellow to red-orange flower petals, about
a half- inch long, appear before the leaves which have a reddish cast as they
unfold. These are slightly less hardy
than those of the common witchhazel, but still through much of USDA zone 4. You
may find the cultivars ‘Autumn Embers’ with orange flowers or the yellow ‘Sandra’.
Chinese witchhazel (H. mollis) is less hardy, being marginal
in USDA zone 5 with flowers damaged at -10 to -15 degrees (F). It and its cultivars have flowers in varying
degrees of yellow to gold. Japanese
witchhazel (H. japonica) is similar
to the Chinese, with similar hardiness, but with less showy and less fragrant
flowers and is less commonly found.
Most commonly found are the hybrids (H. x intermedia) between the Chinese and
Japanese, with more vigor than either.
Upright and spreading with time, they are usually 12 to 15 feet high and
wide, but could grow even larger. They
often flower into USDA zone 5 in the north in early spring, as their parents,
with their flowers hardy to about -20 degrees.
There are many cultivars of the hybrid witchhazel, ‘Pallida’ with its sulfur
yellow flowers being one of the best.
‘Diane’ has orange red flowers, while ‘Jelena’ has coppery orange
flowers and orange red fall foliage. ‘Arnold Promise’, originally named in 1963
at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, has yellow flowers arising out of a red cup
(“calyx”). It is one of the best and most popular.