This large, multistemmed shrub or small tree grows wild in eastern North American woodlands and along stream banks. Although witch hazel appears rather nondescript in summer, it shines in fall, when its leaves turn golden yellow, and its fragrant yellow flowers appear as late as December.
Native Americans found many medicinal uses for this plant — as a pain reliever, cold remedy, treatment for skin irritations, and much more. Some groups also attributed certain supernatural powers to the plant: The Mohegans, for instance, used the shrub’s pliable forked branches to locate hidden water supplies and buried treasures. European settlers used the plant in similar ways. The plant’s common name derives from the Old English word wych, meaning “pliant.”
Common Name: Witch Hazel
Description: Deciduous shrub or small tree, 8 to 15 feet tall, with long, forking branches; bright yellow, threadlike flowers; coarsely toothed leaves turn bright yellow in fall
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Flowering: Early autumn
Parts Used: Twigs, leaves, and bark
Range/Habitat: Eastern and central North America; moist woods and stream banks
Witch hazel is valued as an astringent, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic. Native Americans prepared a leaf or bark tea that they used as a general tonic, cough-and-cold remedy, and rinse for mouth or throat irritations. Soaking the leaves and twigs yielded a soothing extract, which they applied as a compress or wash to cuts, bruises, insect bites, rashes, and other skin irritations, as well as for eye inflammation, headache, and muscle and joint pain.
Today, witch hazel is a common ingredient in many personal-care products, including deodorants, aftershave lotions, disposable wipes, soaps, and body creams. Witch hazel is usually applied topically to treat superficial cuts, hemorrhoids, and insect bites.
Caution: Used internally, witch hazel can irritate your stomach.
With fall blooms and bright fall foliage, witch hazel makes a striking addition to naturalistic plantings and shrub borders in your landscape. The Chinese species Hamamelis mollis and Chinese–Japanese hybrids (H. × intermedia) include many outstanding garden cultivars with fragrant golden, copper, or red flowers. Most of the hybrids bloom a bit later (January to March) than the native American species.
How to grow it
Witch hazel flourishes in partial shade and moist, rich soil with a neutral to acid pH. Plant nursery-grown shrubs in spring. Propagate by seed or by layering. To improve the germination of collected seeds, keep them at 70°F for 2 months, then chill them at 40°F for 3 more months before planting.