Common Witch-Hazel

Hamamelis virginiana (common witch-hazel) is a frequently encountered at The Holden Arboretum, especially in moist bottomlands in mature woodlands such as Pierson Creek Valley and Stebbins Gulch where it is found in association with Lindera benzoin (spicebush). The native range of this witch-hazel extends from Nova Scotia west to Minnesota and south to central Florida and eastern Texas.

After 10 years from seed in Holden’s Baldwin research plot 15 individuals averaged just over 9 feet in height. Specimens 25 years old or more can be over 20 feet tall with a somewhat greater spread. For best growth, soil should be moist and acid to neutral.

In the landscape, common witch-hazel is best planted where it receives full sun for at least part of the day. Plants in full shade have a rather gaunt and open growth habit. Witch-hazels have a coarse root system so are best moved when small. If you must move a larger specimen, a good time is early fall while the foliage is still green. This is our last native plant to bloom. The pale yellow, thin ribbon-like petals begin unfurling between late September and late October, and can be in full bloom through November. Although the flowers are frequently hidden beneath the foliage, they have a pleasant, mild fragrance which varies from tree to tree.

The leaves of common witch-hazel can be up to 6 inches long and resemble those of Ulmus (elm) and Corylus (hazel), the source of hazel nuts. The vegetative buds of witch-hazel are naked in contrast to the buds of elm and hazel, although its floral buds are “clothed” in tiny bud scales.

In October and November the foliage turns a showy yellow before falling, although many individuals are marcescent, retaining a portion of their brown dead leaves until spring. In fall the half-inch fruits open with a sharp sound and their small seeds fly about 15 feet or so. To harvest seed, collect the unopened fruits in fall, put them in a paper bag, roll up the top and leave it in a room where the popcorn-like sounds won’t disturb you.

The name Hamamelis is from the Greek hama (together with) and melon (apple or fruit) referring to the fact that the common witch-hazel flowers when the fruit is ripe in fall. The common name requires a bit more explanation. Witch is a corruption of wice, Old English for lively or to bend. In Great Britain, a divining rod in the hands of a dowser would become “lively” when it came near an underground water source, pointing to the spot to dig a well. While the “witch-hazel tree” that these divining rods were cut from in England was an elm, Ulmus glabra, American colonists found a suitable replacement in Hamamelis virginiana, which has since been known as a witch-hazel.

Native Americans introduced European colonists to the medicinal uses of this plant, and it is still approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its antioxidant, radiation-protective and anti-inflammatory properties.