Native Witch Hazel In Winter

by Cindy Gilberg

On warm winter days in late January-February, a sweet honey-like and almost spicy scent drifts on gentle breezes in some gardens and woodlands. True spring is still a couple of months away, yet follow the scent and find an enchanting small tree in full bloom—the Ozark witch hazel. Even more surprising is that, despite the wintery time of year, small native bees, moths and flies venture out on these occasional warm days to forage, and thus pollinate, witch hazel flowers. Because of the cold temperature, Ozark witch hazel remains cloaked in its yellow, fringe-like flowers for many weeks, a plus for both insects and for the aesthetic value it adds to the winter garden scene.

There are two native witch hazels in our region. Mentioned above, Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) has horizontal branches at maturity with fragrant winter flowers. In its native range, it grows along creek banks and low, wooded areas. Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has a more upright habit and blooms in October and November.

It also attracts insects, active on warm days searching for a bit of pollen and nectar before winter. This species is more widespread, with a native range from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to Missouri. Ozark witchazel grows in wet to average garden soil and while common witchazel will tolerate very dry locations. Both adapt well to either shady or sunny sites. Growing to a height of about 12-20 feet, they are excellent options for adding color in the wintery months as well as offering habitat value for insects and for birds that come to nest in their branches. Witch hazel can be used to visually fill the vertical middle of the landscape—the space between the perennials at the ground level and the tall trees. A diversity of plant types (perennials, shrubs, small and large trees) creates not only a more interesting scene, but also provides the best habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Though not a true hazel, witch hazel does have leaves that resemble our native hazelnut. The origin of its strange name is in the Anglo-Saxon word “wych” (bendable, supple or pliant) and the Middle English word “wicke” (lively). Early British settlers noted that Native Americans used its forked and crooked branches as divining rods to find underground water, similar to the European practice of using hazel branches. The branch would bend when it passed over a source of water. Also called dowsing, this practice remained a popular method for well-diggers into the 1900’s. Some American tribes valued the wood for making bows. The seeds produced by witch hazel are inside a hard capsule and are shiny, black and edible with a flavor reminiscent of pistachio. Both species of witch hazel were important medicinal plants for many Native American tribes.

Highly astringent due to tannins, it was used to curb bleeding, treat inflammation, and as a skin treatment for insect bites, burns, cuts, and bruises. Witch hazel is still used today as a popular ingredient in many skin lotions, soaps and in hemorrhoid cream. As with any medicinal plant, be sure to identify the plant properly, the part of the plant that is used, the proper preparation and the correct amount to be used in treatment. Or just buy it already prepared!

Witch hazel plants are readily available at most garden centers and nurseries. While there are also Asian species as well as hybrids and cultivars, the native species is just as showy and desirable in our landscapes. Plant them where you will be sure to appreciate them during the winter months.

This column is written in collaboration with Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Visit the Whitmire Wildflower Garden (at Shaw Nature Reserve), a 5-acre display garden, for ideas on native plant landscaping. Native plant conservation and the promotion of native plants in our landscapes is vital to restoring the rich biodiversity of our region.