Sunny or shady areas look spectacular in autumn when planted with this large shrub or small tree. Common witchhazel delights the senses with bright-yellow leaves, ribbons of yellow petals (in late fall and winter!), and woody fruit capsules that expel seeds with an audible pop (another common name is snapping hazel). Renowned botanist Linnaeus observed the concurring leaves, flowers, and fruits and named the plant hama (at the same time) and melon (apple or fuit). It usually grows 10 to 15 feet tall and wide and prefers partial shade, but it can grow 30 feet tall in full sun. It prefers slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soils and will tolerate occasional standing water and wetter conditions. Extremely dry conditions should be avoided. It adapts to a wide variety of soil types, including loam, clay, sandy, silty, and poor. Soils that are very alkaline may result in yellowed foliage. Witchhazel doesn’t experience serious disease or pest problems, but it may develop harmless aphid galls on the foliage, especially if planted near birch trees, as the aphids spend part of their lifecycle on birches.
Common witchhazel has large, irregular branches that arise in the shape of a vase and form a spreading, rounded crown. The hazel-like, green leaves turn yellow around the time the late-blooming flowers appear. The fruit capsules, which go dormant in winter and develop during the next growing season, split open in fall to expel their seeds 10 to 20 feet from the plant. The seeds take two winters to germinate and are often eaten by birds and small mammals.
Witchhazel can self-pollinate, but research shows that viable seeds are rarely produced in this manner. The showy flowers produce nectar and pollen in a ratio typical of insect-pollinated flowers, but researchers have different ideas about which insects are doing the pollinating. Some have observed a group of owlet moths feeding on the flowers. These moths spend energy “shivering” to raise their body temperatures enough to fly in the cold winter air searching for food. An intensive study by Anderson & Hill (2002) observed flies and bees visiting the flowers. The fungal gnats were able to pick up pollen, but were too small to be very effective pollinators. The bees made fewer visits but were able to carry more pollen.
This versatile plant has inspired many common names (fall witch hazel, American witchhazel, striped alder, and tobacco-wood) and uses. “Witchhazel” comes from an old English word that means "to bend,” referring to its crooked branches and also to the practice of using the branches as divining rods to find underground water. H. virginiana is the plant that is used to make the common astringent known as witch hazel. The extract, which is harvested from the bark and roots, is distilled and combined with alcohol. The astringent is used as a disinfectant and anti-inflammatory to relieve itching and burning caused by hemorrhoids, childbirth, and rectal surgery, among other things. In addition, tannins found in the bark have been used to treat hemorrhoids, eye infections, sinus conditions, bleeding gums, and other infections.
Native habitats include woodland edges, moist woods, banks of streams and rivers, thickets, and bottomlands. Makes a great specimen plant or addition to naturalized areas and woodland gardens. Use it in mass plantings, as a hedge or screen, or in shrub borders. It’s showy and effective as a backdrop for other plants or when placed in front of brick buildings.
To learn more about common witchhazel, here is a link to a wonderful article by Mary Ann Borge on her website, The Natural Web: https://the-natural-web.org/2017/12/12/bewitching-witch-hazel/
Grows 15-30’ tall and 15-25’ wide. Growth is about two feet per year.
Prefers partial shade but tolerates full sun and shade.
Prefers slightly acidic, moist, rich soils but also grows in sandy, clay, or silty loam. Tolerates different moisture levels except for extremely dry.
Yellow flowers have 4 wrinkled, ribbon-like petals and bloom late fall into winter. Rounded, ½” capsules contain several black seeds.
Green leaves are obovate in shape and 3-6” long with serrated edges and excellent fall color.
Trunk is multi-stemmed and can be pruned into a small tree. The bark is light brown or gray and thin. It peels off to reveal a reddish-purple inner bark.
Witchhazel is a host plant to 69 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including large lace-border, definite tussock, funerary dagger, and yellow-necked caterpillar moths. Small mammals and a variety of birds, including ruffed grouses, northern bobwhites, and wild turkeys, eat the seeds. Deer occasionally browse the plant during winter.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the twigs and bark of witch hazel as a medicinal herb, both internally and externally, for a wide variety of ailments. A brewed tea was consumed to treat sore throats, diarrhea, intestinal bleeding, colds, coughs, bruising, and postpartum hemorrhaging.
The extract is also used in aftershave lotions and toilet water.
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