In Cherokee County, we see flowering trees and shrubs in the early spring through mid-summer. There is an interesting exception to that rule with the native witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, which usually flowers November through early December here in north Georgia. Witch hazel (Hamamelis species) is a genus of small trees and shrubs native to Asia and North America that contains five species and close to 100 cultivars. This Gardening with the Masters’ column focuses on the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, found in Georgia. Witch hazel is an understory deciduous woody plant usually found in upland mixed hardwood forests. The small tree often exhibits multiple trunks and an irregular, somewhat flattened spreading crown in the forest.
Witch hazel blooms in late fall or late winter, depending on the species. They can have unique yellow flowers. These trees are known as witch hazels because, with a little bit of creative thinking, the stringy, curvy petals of its flower are thought by some to resemble a witch’s broom. In addition to the wispy, twisted, ribbon-like appearance, witch hazel flowers are remarkably durable. It is not uncommon for plants in full bloom to tolerate temperatures in the low 20s for several days. Depending on the species (Asian or native) or cultivar, the spicily fragrant flowers come in red, yellow, and orange shades. Witch hazel bloom time ranges from fall to late winter. For this reason, you may hear some species of witch hazel called by the common name “winterbloom.” All Witch hazels are fragrant to some extent, though some selections are so intense that their spicy scent can saturate the calm winter air.
The term “witch” probably comes from the Old English word “wych,” meaning “to bend.” Another name of the species is “water-witch” because dowsers and early settlers would use a Y-shaped branch of witch hazel, known as a divining rod, to find groundwater. A dowser would grasp the branch’s forked ends, holding it out parallel to the ground in front of them. When water was below their feet, the divining rod would bend or “witch” downward, pointing to the underground source’s location. A less familiar name is “snapping hazel,” resulting from the unique, rather loud popping sound that its seed pods make as they dry out and literally explode. This novel seed dispersal method can send the witch hazel’s tiny, ripened black seeds flying through the air a distance of up to 25 feet, ensuring that there will be less competition with the parent tree after the seed germinates.
The botanical name Hamamelis means “together with fruit.” Witch hazels are the only North American tree to incorporate next year’s leaf buds, last year’s ripe seed pods, and this year’s flowers all on the same branch at the same time. Ever hear of witch hazel tonic? This medicinal concoction is made from oil extracted from the bark, stems, and leaves of the native witch hazel, H. virginiana. Native Americans are credited with making this discovery. They, in turn, taught early settlers of its medicinal properties. The tonic is still used as a treatment for sunburn, skin irritations, dryness and insect bites.
But it is not just the unique bloom times or intriguing names that make this plant so attractive. It also has drop-dead spectacular fall color, ranging from a vivid deep yellow to a rich orange-red. Most Hamamelis species are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8 and prefer well-drained, moist, loamy, acidic soils. Witch hazels are not very drought tolerant. It is suggested that you use a non-compacting mulch to keep the roots cool and moist, as these trees are subject to drought stress. Witch hazels can be use in effective in various ways in the landscape, as specimen trees or in a massed planting in both partial shade and morning sun.
The Georgia native can be found in numerous Georgia counties from the mountains to the Atlantic ocean. The tree presents its faintly scented yellow flowers just as the nearby hardwood trees are losing their autumn leaves. The native range of H. virginiana is from New Brunswick, Canada, down to Georgia and west to Minnesota, Missouri, and the Ozarks. The plant’s height can range from 6 to 25 feet with a similar spread. There are several native eastern witch hazel cultivars available in the nursery trade. They include H. virginiana’ Harvest Moon’ and ‘Little Suzie.’If you are looking for an attractive native shrub or small tree to “spice” up your landscape with a unique flower and flowering time, consider planting a witch hazel.