Witch hazel is a small tree or shrub that is native to North America. The word "witch" in the plant's name refers not to witches but to the Middle English word "wiche," which simply means 'bendable', referring to the flexibility of the tree's branches. Witch hazel is an attractive addition to the landscape and also has medicinal properties.
Witch hazel ranges from the east coast of North America to the central states, and from Florida to Canada, including hardiness zones 3 through 11. The witch hazel is found under the canopy and along the edges of hardwood forests.
Witch hazel is one of the latest plants to bloom in the year, producing flowers in the late fall or early winter. The blossoms are curious looking, with long, thin, strap-like petals that give them a rather spidery appearance. They can range in color from red to yellow, depending upon the variety. The leaves alternate on long, slender branches. They are two to six inches in length and one to four inches in width, round to oval in shape, with a slight point in the end and deep veins radiating outward from a central rib. The leaves have slightly serrated, somewhat wavy edges. They are smooth in texture and their color is green, turning to yellow in the fall. The fruit is a small, hard, brown seed pod that holds one or two seeds. The bark of the tree is relatively thin, grayish brown and peels easily.
Witch hazel grows to between 15 and 20 feet in height and equally as wide. The plant frequently grows from several leader trunks that sprout from the base of the plant, although it can be trained to grow from a single leader into a more tree-like form. The canopy is roughly rounded, open, and medium in texture. Witch hazel frequently produces sucker stems from the base of the plant.
Witch hazel will grow well in full sun or partial shade. It thrives in light, moist, well-drained soil, though it does tolerate dry conditions fairly well. It will not tolerate flooded conditions or compacted soils. To irrigate a new planting, one inch of water per week is sufficient. Once established, watering will be necessary only during periods of severe drought. Unless the soil needs to be amended, witch hazel usually requires no fertilization. The plant can be trained by pruning the branches to keep them from getting too leggy.
Witch hazel plant is commonly used in woodland settings and at the back of gardens where its fall flowers will add color. It can also be planted as a specimen tree. Forked twigs of the witch hazel tree are commonly used as divining rods. An extract from the plant's bark is frequently used medicinally as an astringent and can be found as an ingredient in after-shave lotions, hemorrhoid preparations and acne treatments. It has a distinctive scent that most people consider quite pleasant.