In the woods, common or Eastern witch hazel doesn’t stand out much. This native bush or small tree has a thin, airy habit, with widely spaced branches that practically disappear among the trunks of stately oaks and beeches. About the only thing that stands out is its strange-looking seedpod. But put Hamamelis virginiana in a sunny spot in your garden, and its subtle beauty becomes more visible. The zigzag branches, the scalloped, oval leaves (which turn bright yellow in autumn), and most remarkably, the fall blossoms—spidery, fragrant, yellow flowers that cover the stems from October to December—create one of the most unique plants you could hope to find.
Common name: Common witch hazel, Eastern witch hazel
Botanical name: Hamamelis virginiana
Plant type: Deciduous shrub
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 12 to 20 feet tall and wide
· Sun: Full sun to part shade
· Soil: Rich, humusy, acidic. Will tolerate heavy clay and dry shade.
· Moisture: Average to moist
· Mulch: Mulch to help keep soil moist.
· Pruning: Cut suckers to the ground if you want to prevent common witch hazel from forming a thicket.
· Fertilizer: None needed.
· By seed
Pests and diseases
· Gall aphids and scale insects may appear.
· May be vulnerable to powdery mildew and wood rot.
· Because of its large size, this species of witch hazel is best at the back of the garden, in a woodland setting, or by itself as a specimen plant.
· The bark, twigs, and leaves of common witch hazel are used to make an astringent that’s commercially available.
· This shrub is a colonizer. Allow it to form a grove or privacy screen, or control it with regular pruning.
· Underplant H. virginiana with woodland flowers like columbine, meadow rue, and asters. In late fall, their feathery leaves will provide a pretty green skirt under the shrub’s yellow flowers and foliage.
· H. virginiana is also good among other shrubs. It will be a background plant during the summer, but take the spotlight in fall.
· None widely available.
All in the family
· Witch hazel seedpods pop when ripe, scattering the seeds as far as 30 feet.
· Witch hazel is the only native North American tree with branches that carry flowers, ripe fruit, and next year’s leaf buds at the same time. The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit.”
· The genus Hamamelis contains just five or six species—most common are H. virginiana and H. vernalis (a winter-blooming witch hazel) from North America and H. mollis and H. japonica, both from East Asia.
· Very common in the garden are the cultivars of H. x intermedia, a cross between H. mollis and H. japonica. These witch hazels are generally more vase-shaped, with brighter fall color and larger flowers—they are also less hardy than H. virginiana.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo courtesy of the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden.)