If you're ever disappointed that after the last flush of flowers in the fall, very little is thriving to get you through the winter months, despair no longer - there is a plant that blooms from October through December. Hamamelis virginiana- common witch hazel - is sure to be the star of your garden next winter.
Witch hazel is a unique plant in that the flowers, ripe fruits, and next year's leaf buds are present simultaneously. The flowers are cold tolerant and can persist through multiple days of sub-freezing temperatures without issue. These flowers resemble delicate sprays of confetti and are often bright yellow with a red center - turning the entire shrub into a festive ticker-tape parade. These flowers not only offer some winter interest but also have an intoxicating citrus scent that is both surprising and pleasant.
The fruits of witch hazel are small dry capsules that can release seeds up to 30 feet away. Many of the seeds do not survive predation and environmental stress, so there is little concern of having witch hazel take over your landscapes. But, this does make them ideal for hedges and windbreaks as they propagate new plants over time. The capsules you see on your plant in the spring developed from the flowers the previous fall - they need a period of cold to develop fully.
You may be familiar with witch hazel extract used for skin care and minor skin irritation. The bark and roots of the witch hazel shrub can be processed to create the extract. If you're so inclined, there are resources to produce your witch hazel extract. The bark and roots are preferred because they have the highest concentration of tannins, one of the chemical compounds that reduce the inflammation and may contain antibacterial applications.
Whether you want to grow your witch hazel for the beautiful seasonal displays or the health benefits, it's important to know what conditions it prefers for the healthiest plant that will survive for years to come. Witch hazel grows best in full sun to partial shade - for best results; it needs a minimum of four hours of direct sunlight. This shrub can be sensitive to drought conditions, so watering in the summer during establishment is essential. Mulching will also help keep the soil from drying out too quickly in the hot summer months.
They do best in loamy acidic soils but have been known to tolerate other conditions with little hassle. However, too much water will drown the shrub, so be sure the soil drains efficiently. Witch hazel grows large, so be sure to have enough room for them. At full maturity, one shrub will range in size from 15 to 30 feet high and spread 15 to 25 feet wide. While this may sound like a broad range, many different cultivars will have different sizes, so be sure to pick which variety best fits in your area.
When it comes to management, witch hazel is relatively self-sustaining. It may need light pruning to keep it in a manageable shape. Pruning should be done following bloom, so the flower buds will not be damaged. By pruning later, you'll get to enjoy the flowers during the winter months. Witch hazel is resistant to many pests and diseases and will tolerate light deer browsing.
If deer are an issue in your landscape, protecting your young shrubs is essential, but as the shrub matures, it becomes less of an issue. There is not much that will bother this plant, making it ideal for use in a low-maintenance, easy to take care of landscape. With its multi-seasonal beauty, its herbal uses, and its ease of care, witch hazel is an essential landscape plant you should consider using.
Common Witch Hazel - Hamamelis virginiana Notable Characteristics: 15-20 foot spread, 15-20 foot height, USDA zones 4-8, Full sun to part shade, Fragrant yellow flowers in the late fall and into the winter, Flowers, fruits and new buds all on the same stem, Resistant to most landscape problems