Witch-hazels

Witch-hazel (Hamanelis virginiana), (H.vernalis), and (H.ovalis)

There are three witch-hazels native to the United States. In the November 2012 Ohio magazine Jim Sell wrote that the common witch-hazel "looks much like Dr. Seuss sneaked into the woods with a yellow crayon and drew squiggly lines all over the shrub." Or "as if it were adorned with the waving tentacles of beautiful Chihuly art glass."

Witch-hazel was christened by Linnaeus, father of botanical nomenclature back in 1753.   Witch from wych, old English word for flexible, and hazel for having leaves very much like hazelnut trees.   The leaves have impressed veins which are medium to dark green and are about 4" long.

The common witch-hazel in Ohio (H.virginiana) flowers in the woods in the fall through much of the winter and is a solid yellow color. Another native to the U.S. (H.vernalis) is known as the Ozark witch-hazel, and is found in zones 4-8 (For a conventional hardiness zone map click here. For a more detailed interactive GIS map published by the USDA click here.). It has a red flower and blooms in the spring with its brown leaves still hanging on to its branches. You can find a fine specimen between the Education Center and very near the Patterson door. Go up close to it and be surprised by the intricacy of the flowers which may be hidden by those leaves. Observe the three newly planted shrubs through the southside glass corridor window as you enter the Apartment building, through the corridor window northwest of the Library entrance, and in the grove between Cottages 108 and 100. They are very fragrant. H.ovalis was discovered in 2004 and is not readily available for cultivation.

Witch-hazels like half-day shade and well-drained soil which is acid to neutral. Most varieties reach 10-20 in hight and width. H. vernalis is shorter than H.virginiana. They can be pruned back. They have no significant disease problems and are quite adaptive to the environment. However, they can get several fungal diseases if too wet, which can mar their appearance.

It is known as a true medicinal plant. Native Americans showed the Colonists its properties. It is an ingredient in non-prescription drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration and skin care products.  

Witch-hazels are important additions to our Arboretum especially since they provide nectar for pollinators when few other plants are blooming. Its capsule-shaped seeds ripen in the fall and are eaten by a number of birds. It is a host plant for the larvae of the spring azure butterfly.

                                                                                   Anne Helm for the John Bartram Arboretum

Witch-hazel blossoms and seed pods, photo by Anne Helm

witch hazel comp