Witch Hazel

Witch hazel

Hamamelis virginiana


Description:

Another very attractive yet rare native shrub. It grows to a height of 20 feet (6 m) and is a slender, graceful shrub. The leaves are 2-6 inches (5-15 cm) long, wavy and toothed, and turn yellow in the fall. In September and October, as the leaves are falling, the bright yellow flowers bloom. The flowers look like those of the forsythia shrubs commonly planted around Island homes, yet appear at the opposite end of the growing season. The seeds are shiny and black, encased within a capsule 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) long. Buds are small, velvety-brown, and alternate.

Habitat:

The best growth is made under light shade in rich, well-drained soil, but witch hazel tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. This shrub is slow growing but is quite hardy.

Propagation:

Seed should be collected from the shrub if possible. Crops are usually quite heavy and can hang on late into the year.

Throughout September and into October, collect the seed capsules, which contain two seeds. Store them in a box with a lid, or a closed paper bag in a warm, dry location. As the capsules dry, they will burst open, releasing the seeds. Then it is an easy task to sort out the husks from the seed.

Plant as soon as possible. Plant seeds every 2 inches (5 cm), in rows 6 inches (15 cm) apart, at a depth of 1/4 inch (6 mm).

The plants grow slowly at first, so you’ll have to be patient, but it will be worthwhile.

Wildlife Uses:

The value to wildlife is relatively low, but red squirrels and ruffed grouse eat the seed and the plant provides cover and protection for other species.

Areas of Usage:

Witch hazel is an excellent landscape plant if you have some shade. It is important in woodland plantings for its beauty and the diversity it provides in species, flowering times, and height. Witch hazel is very useful as a medicinal. The twigs, bark, and leaves are used to produce oil of witch hazel, while the roots are used to produce a tincture that is also known for its healing powers. Witch hazel salve is still made and sold throughout the world as a topical remedy for burns and rashes. It is also made into liniments and tinctures, and often used by veterinarians for pain relief in horses.

Additional Information:

In the past witch hazel was often thought of as a magical shrub, revered for its medicinal properties. It was also used to find underground water. Known for its water-divining powers, a forked branch from this shrub was thought to be magically tuned to underground sources of water. One would walk around, guided by the pull of the branch till you felt it vibrate or pull downwards, indicating where one should dig a water well. 

Another fascinating adaptation of the witch hazel is the unique seed pods. These two-seed capsules are engineered under tension. As the husk dries in the fall, they split open with such force, they can shoot the seeds more than 20 feet (6m). This ensures that the seed is spread away from the parent plant, reducing competition. 

The unique yellow fall flowers are an autumnal treat. Not only are there few native species which flower that late in the year, but the flowers give off a wonderful lemony scent—one of the best fragrances of autumn. As these shrubs can grow quite large and often have a prolific number of flowers, these sweet smells can waft for some distance. Sometimes in the fall, it can be easier to find a witch hazel with your nose rather than your eyes.

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