We are fortunate in Missouri to have two native species of witch hazel, one of which was in full bloom the first week of December this year. Members of the Hamamelidaceae family, witch hazels are deciduous shrubs or small trees generally noted for good fall leaf color, but particularly for the odd times of year at which they bloom. The generic name Hamamelis is derived from the Greek words “hama” (at the same time) and “melon” (apple). This may refer to the fact that flowers and fruit are present at the same time on plants in this genus. The common name comes from the old English “wice” or “wyce” (pliant) and “hazel” (diving rod or witching stick for finding water). There is some possible confusion about the common name “witch hazel”, which was originally used in England to refer to Ulmus glabra, the Scotch Elm because its branches were preferred for dowsing. Today, the word “hazel” is most strongly associated with plants in the genus Corylus, which produce hazel nuts (filberts). While the leaves of witch hazels bear a remote resemblance to those of plants like our native American hazel nut (Corylus americana), the latter is in the birch family (Betulaceae), not Hamamelidaceae.
There is a considerable body of lore describing the medicinal properties of witch hazel. Extracts and distillates of bark are generally thought to have antiinflammatory and astringent properties. In herbalist writings, witch hazel extract is often mentioned as a treatment to stop internal bleeding or to reduce swelling from bruises, sprains or insect bites. Native Americans in Missouri apparently used a concentrated bark extract as a liniment to keep the legs of young athletes limber. Witch hazel extract is an ingredient in some modern hemorrhoid treatments.
Common witchhazel can reach a height of 25 feet, forming a rounded crown with interesting branch architecture. The plant tolerates dryness but grows slowly. It grows best in sun or partial shade and in light, moist soil The fragrant flowers are produced in late fall to early winter and have strap-like, crumpled yellow petals about ½ inch long. Fall leaf color can be an excellent, clear yellow.
Vernal Witchhazel is a, dense, upright shrub growing to 10 feet tall. It can be used in screens or windbreaks, or as a specimen. The plant can be grown in sun or shade. The yellow to red flowers with ½-inch, strap-like petals are produced in late winter to early spring. Leaves on new growth are purplish and fall color is usually outstanding golden yellow. H. vernalis prefers moist soil but is somewhat more adaptable than H. virginiana, tolerating higher pH and clay soils fairly well.
Some cultivars of H. vernalis include:
Two non-native landscape plants that have some charming features in common with witch hazels are Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica) and Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii). Persian parrotia is a tree which grows to 40 feet with beautiful exfoliating bark. It is interesting in that, like Hamamelis vernalis, it blooms in very early spring. The flowers are unusual, in that they have no petals, only tufts of reddish anthers. Fothergilla is a 3-foot shrub which also blooms in early spring. Its flowers are 1-inch spikes of pure white filaments with tiny yellow anthers at their tips. Leaves of fothergilla bear a strong resemblance to those of Hamamelis vernalis and they often have a spectacular reddish orange fall color characteristic of the family.
REVISED: September 30, 2015