By Teo Spengler
If you have Jelena witch hazel plants in your backyard, your winter landscape will blaze with their rich coppery-orange blossoms. And that sweet fragrance is delightful. Growing Jelena witch hazel brings an unusual plant into your garden. Learn more here.
By Teo Spengler
Does witch hazel need to be pruned? It does. For best results, you'll need to start pruning witch hazel on a regular basis. If you have questions on when or how to prune witch hazel, then we have answers. Click this article for information on witch hazel pruning.
Something amazing is about to happen in the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden: dozens and dozens of witch hazels will all burst into bloom at once in February.
It's year two of our six-year witch hazel trial, which compares 36 different cultivars (three of each!) from the four major Hamamelis species. As with all of our trials in the Plant Evaluation Garden, gardeners can witness the process as young witch hazels settle in, grow, bloom year after year, and mature into full-size plants under conditions similar to those in your own yard.
At first glance, witch hazels hardly seem candidates for tests or trials, since, as a group, they are hardy, maintenance-free, and ignored by most pests. Whether you think of them as small trees or large shrubs, they are manageably sized, topping out at 10 to 20 feet, with some spreading forms nearly as wide. They are shapely shrubs, with smooth, rather plain brown-to-gray bark. Handsome oval leaves, sometimes downy on the underside, turn all sorts of colors in fall. And then there's the crowning glory: shaggy, spidery winter blooms with long, crinkly petals, clustered up and down the length of the branches.
Witch hazels are small trees/shrubs that grow 10 to 20 feet high and, sometimes, nearly as wide. Illustration: Lane, Chris. 2005. Witch Hazels. Published in association with the Royal Horticultural Society by Timber Press. Portland, Oregon. p. 227.
In fact, the only major drawback to witch hazels lies at their roots—a preference for well-drained, loamy, acidic soil means that they grow less than happily in clay soil.
That's what led two of our dedicated plantsmen — Dr. Andrew Bell, curator of woody plants, and Richard Hawke, manager of plant evaluation — to design the witch hazel trial. Their question: which of the myriad witch hazel cultivars perform best in Chicago's less-than-perfect soils?
The trial features 22 cultivars of Hamamelis x intermedia, the hybrid witch hazels born from the cross between two species' parents: Hamamelis mollis (Chinese witch hazel) and Hamamelis japonica (Japanese witch hazel). These hybrids are changing the outdated perception of witch hazels as twiggy, non-landscape-worthy shrubs, with more flower colors (orange, red, pink, and purple, plus a whole spectrum of yellows), more compact/home-appropriate sizes, and a crazy quilt of fall foliage color options.
Tour the witch hazel beds and you'll see H. x intermedia with names like 'Glowing Embers', 'Ripe Corn', 'Strawberries and Cream', and 'Purple Ribbons'. The rare opportunity to compare them — all in bloom at once — is a gardener's dream when it comes to choosing a finalist for your yard.
Andrew Bell explains how to use witch hazels to best advantage at home. "Give them full or three-quarter-sun in a well-drained spot where their roots won't stay wet," he says (an important note for those with automatic irrigation systems). "The idea is to plant witch hazels against a background of dark evergreens or contrasting brick, so the clusters of flowers lining the bare branches are shown off to best effect."
The great botanist Linnaeus saw leaves, flowers, and the prior year's fruit all at once on a single native witch hazel, thus choosing "hama" ("at the same time") and "melon" (apple or fruit) for its name.
For native plant aficionados, our North American native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is also trialed, along with five of its cultivars. The native species is hardy (USDA Zones 3-8), spectacular in autumn (it flowers at the same time as its leaves turn golden yellow, rather than blooming in winter), and its fragrance is somewhere between sweet and intoxicating on a fine fall day. H. virginiana is the witch hazel grown and harvested for the extract of its bark and roots, which is distilled into the common astringent that bears its name. Plant it in your yard and you'll honor history: none other than Linnaeus himself named it in 1753.
So far in our trials, Dr. Bell singles out 'Little Suzie' and 'Harvest Moon' as species cultivars with lots of landscape potential — the former for its abundance of flowers on a compact frame, and the latter because it drops its leaves before its lemon yellow flowers open in fall.
Seven Hamamelis vernalis (vernal, or spring-blooming, witch hazel) cultivars round out the trial. These are the witch hazels native to the Ozark Mountains areas of Missouri and Arkansas, renowned for their intensely fragrant (though smaller-sized) flowers. Look for H. vernalis 'Amethyst'. "Its dark, near-purple flowers aren't as noticeable as lighter-colored blooms," says Dr. Bell, "but the display would be fantastic against a white house or pale stone wall."
Alone among the four major witch hazel species, Hamamelis japonica won't be found in our trials — while it's common on the mountainsides of Japan, it can't handle the extremes in Chicago-area weather. There is one example of the species at the Chicago Botanic Garden, though: it's a bonsai, one of the 19 trees donated by Japanese bonsai master Susumu Nakamura to our collection in 2000. A spectacular tree in an unexpected size, this witch hazel was the star of our Three Friends of Winter bonsai silhouette show in January it can be seen periodically in the bonsai courtyards.
To get to the Bernice E. Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden, cross the Trellis Bridge from Evening Island or walk/bike the outer road from the parking lots. The witch hazel trial beds are at the far north end of the garden. You can't miss them — they'll be the only thing blooming in winter! It's a sight every smart gardener should see.
Want to know more about witch hazel cultivars? Our Plant Information staff has the information! Click here to read more about it.
Karen Zaworski is a garden writer and photographer who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.
Dr. Michael A. Dirr, tree guru and renowned author of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, says of H. x intermedia, "Why these plants are not in greater use is beyond me."
Jelena witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena').
Arnold Promise witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise').
Lombart's weeping witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis 'Lombart's Weeping').
Download the GardenGuide App to search for witch hazel while you are here. See all of the species we have planted at the Garden, get plant information, and find plant locations relative to where you are within the Garden.
If you do not live near an abundant source of witch hazel that you can wildcraft, or you are wanting to have this small tree incorporated into your garden and you live in zones 4 to 9, here are ten tips for how to successfully cultivate witch hazel.
Because witch hazel is able to thrive in part shade or sun, you can scan your yard for any area that is not in deep shade. Since it is naturally an understory plant, it may suffer in full, south-facing sun. Give it filtered shade in zone 7 or warmer. Morning sun is best. Witch hazel likes well-drained, moist, and slightly acidic soil. It cannot take dry soils choose a place in your garden that can hold moisture. Other plants that like similar soil are rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), azaleas (Rhododendron tsutsusi, R. pentanthera), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.), daffodils (Narcissus psuedonarcissus), and hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), so if you have any of these growing in your garden already, and they are doing well, consider planting a witch hazel near them.
The more sun it gets (although not too much afternoon sun!), the bigger it will grow. Give it the potential to grow 15 feet wide x 20 feet tall (4.6 m x 6 m) even though it will most likely be smaller. Walk around the area and ask: “Would a witch hazel tree like to live here?”
In general, planting in the spring after the last frost is ideal. If you are unable to do it then, early summer or late fall is a close runner-up. Planting shrubs in summer and winter is discouraged as the extreme heat or cold can damage the tender root system. But, sometimes, you just gotta go for it when you can or not at all, and in that case, plant a witch hazel anytime the ground isn’t frozen! If it is midsummer, water every day, and if it is winter, mulch it heavily.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) provides a surprising pop of color in the winter months
There are four North American species of witch hazel and numerous cultivars. The ornamental varieties have much showier flowers—some bloom in autumn, others in late winter—and they’re exciting to behold in the depths of winter, when color is mostly absent from the garden.
Of all the varieties, American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is the species most known for its strong medicinal properties. Hamamelis vernalis, or Ozark witch hazel, is an astringent as well. We’ll be discussing these two species in this article otherwise, the rest of the genus is not necessarily interchangeable.
Hamamelis virginiana and H.vernalis are not as popular in standard nurseries so you may need to source them from native plant nurseries (take some extra time to inquire whether chemical pesticides or fertilizers have been used—I would look elsewhere if so). Inquire within your community if there is anyone locally cultivating the virginiana species. As a general rule of thumb, the more ornamental a plant is bred to be, the less medicinal it becomes. Strictly Medicinal Seeds sells the two species mentioned above and is also a great resource for all kinds of hard-to-find medicinals.
There may be woods near you with healthy and abundant stands of witch hazel plants. If you have followed the guidelines of ethical wildcrafting and have permission from the property owner to dig a plant, you could try transplanting the witch hazel. Bring along some of the forest soil with you when you transplant the plant, to give it a boost in its new home. If it was growing in part shade and you want to plant it in full sun, be mindful to gradually introduce it to a sunnier locale before planting so you don’t burn the leaves or stress the plant.
If you are already experienced with rooting cuttings, another possibility is starting from a cutting of a wild witch hazel plant. Apparently, witch hazel is not as easy to propagate as some other plants, so I would only recommend this for experienced rooters. It can be grown from seed, but needs cold stratification , takes a year to germinate, and then needs to be babied for a few years before transplanting. Probably just better to buy from Richo . :)
The condition of the soil at the time of planting can make all the difference whether a plant will thrive. If you have a garden bed already prepared that has been weeded, fed, and aerated, then you’re set! If you do not, but you have some forethought and time, place layers of sheet mulch—manure or compost, cardboard and hay/straw or leaves—in a 5 x 5-foot area (1.5 m x 1.5 m) and let it sit for a couple months minimum. If you have neither a prepped garden bed nor time to wait, then begin planting as guided below.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Dig a hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the witch hazel plant. Add compost into half the hole, place the plant, and fill the sides back in with the original soil, removing any grass or weeds. Press down on all sides to make sure the roots are getting in touch with the soil and the plant is solidly in the ground. Make a gradually sloped indention around the base of the plant so that water will funnel into the plant and not away from it. There can be a tendency to mound soil up around the base when planting, and then water just runs off the sides and the surrounding weeds or grass gets the water instead, so be sure to pay attention to your new little witch hazel plant’s capacity to receive water. Next, surround the plant with uncolored, tape-free cardboard and then layer hay, leaves, and/or wood chips on top.
Water your witch hazel plant at least one inch (2.5 cm) a week for the first growing season. I have a rain gauge to keep track and if it does not rain that much in a week, I make sure to get extra water on new plantings. Witch hazel needs a lot of moisture, so ideally you have already planted it in a somewhat moist area. If there is a dry spell or if you live in a climate where it doesn’t rain during the summer, you will have to water it regularly. One of the most common reasons trees and shrubs fail after planting is that they don’t get enough water, especially when they are moisture-loving beings. The mulch helps retain the water by keeping roots covered.
If you are a black tea or coffee drinker, consider offering your spent tea leaves or coffee grounds directly to the base of your witch hazel. It could become a lovely morning ritual! Witch hazel loves the tannins in these plants and will turn the waste into fertilizer. Annually give your witch hazel tree a blanket of manure or compost, some more cardboard, and a mulch layer. This will be all the fertilizer it needs!
Seems like anything that is talked to lovingly and given appreciation does better. Songs are welcome! Need I say more?
Witch hazel is a slow-growing shrub, so there is not a lot of maintenance involved. Patience helps. In the springtime, harvest the young twigs when the leaves are just emerging along with the bark from the smaller branches to use in your herbal preparations. If you’d like to shape the branches, prune after flowering so that the next year’s buds have time to develop. Cut back any suckers that come up from the witch hazel tree’s base. Keep grass away from the base of the tree, as grass can rob plants of moisture and nutrients. Mulch once or twice a year. Keep any neighboring vines from climbing into it. Prune out any dead branches. Admire your witch hazel friend!
All parts of the witch hazel plant have medicinal uses, but the bark is traditionally used for the extract