The witch hazel plant (family: Hamamelidaceae, genus: Hamamelis) is actually a vase-shaped, deciduous shrub or small tree. In North America, witch hazel is also called winterbloom because its light gray bark and bright yellow flower petals offer vivid bursts of color against a drab or snowy backdrop in late fall or winter. In addition to its stunning color, witch hazel blossoms release a lovely fragrance that floats through wooded landscapes from Canada to Georgia.
Two witch hazel species are native to Japan and China (H. mollis and H. japonica), and 3 originate in North America – of which the most popular are the common witch hazel (H. virginiana) and vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis). Choose common witch hazel for the brightest yellow blooms in late fall and early winter. The smaller, vernal witch hazel flowers in late winter/early spring.
Consider witch hazel if you desire a shrub that is virtually maintenance-free, resistant to disease and pest infestation, and one that grows well in USDA Zones 5-9, then witch hazel is a great choice.
You are likely familiar with pharmaceutical-grade witch hazel, which is used to treat insect bites, minor burns, acne, and other skin irritations. This medicinal extract is distilled from the dormant twigs, bark, and dried leaves of the witch hazel plant.
Witch Hazel Care
For witch hazel to attain a full flowering, the plant will require summer watering and a winter chill between 32 and 45 degrees F. Even with the best care, witch hazel will only grow 6 to 12 inches per year. After 6 years of growth, will have reached its full maturity at 10-20 feet (depending on the variety) and begin flowering.
Witch hazel prefers full sun, but it can also tolerate filtered shade, such as found beneath a forest canopy. For the brightest witch hazel foliage, consider planting it in the open where it will receive a full day of sunlight.
An open site will also accommodate the common witch hazel species (H. virginiana) which can grow up to 25 feet in height, or the smaller vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis), which can reach 10 feet when fully mature.
Witch hazel thrives best in moist soil with good drainage. It is a low-maintenance plant that is fairly resistant to drought once the plant has established a good root system. If you’re growing witch hazel for the first 3 years, keep the bush watered frequently and evenly, but avoid a soggy base. Even during dry spells, it is best to mist the soil rather than use a watering can.
Witch hazel features a shallow root system, so it will grow better in well-amended soil. The plant can withstand both acidic and alkaline conditions, but it thrives best in moist, rich, acidic, and dandy or silty loam that has good drainage.
While witch hazel is tolerant of either acidic or alkaline soil conditons, the plant will increase in both size and the amount of flowering with well-amended soil. Work a balanced mix of 20-20-20 or 20-30-20 granular, liquid, or staked fertilizer into the soil up to 4 times per year.
The right amount of pruning will produce a witch hazel shrub or tree that features a good height and a broad crown when fully mature. But, you can keep your plant smaller by pruning the plant back to its young, healthy growth and cutting away any dead or damaged twigs.
To get the best bud development and promote horizontal growth, prune your witch hazel well before the summer heat arrives or just after the plant finishes flowering. Make sure you remove all the suckering twigs that form on the lower portion of the trunk and use mulch to help the soil retain moisture.
It can take up to 2 years and a lot of patience for a witch hazel seed to germinate. The process for container growth or propagation from cuttings is extremely detailed for each stage of the plant’s growing cycle. A better option is to transplant a wild witch hazel found in ravines or wooded areas to your yard or purchase a dormant, bare-rooted witch hazel plant from a nursery.