Witch hazel adds aesthetics, scent
On warm winter days in late January and February, a sweet, honey-like, almost spicy scent drifts on gentle breezes in some gardens and woodlands. True spring is a couple of months away, but follow the scent and find an enchanting small tree in full bloom: 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, Ozark witch hazel remains cloaked in its yellow, fringe-y flowers for many weeks, a plus for insects and the aesthetic value — it adds to the winter garden scene.
There are two native witch hazels in our region. The previously mentioned 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.
Another, known as common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, has a more upright habit and blooms in October and November. It also attracts insects on warm days that are 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 witch hazel grows in wet to average garden soil, while common witch hazel will tolerate very dry locations. Both adapt well to either shady or sunny sites. Growing to a height of about 12 to 20 feet, they are excellent options for adding color in the wintery months as well as offering habitat value for insects, and for the birds that come to nest in their branches.
Witch hazel can be used to fill the vertical middle visual space of the landscape — between the ground-level perennials and the tall trees.
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, meaning “bendable, supple or pliant,” and the Middle English word wicke, “lively.”
Early British settlers noted that Native Americans used its forked, 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 1900s.
Some tribes valued the wood for making bows. The shiny, black, edible seeds produced by witch hazel are inside a hard capsule, 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, the plant was used to curb bleeding, treat inflammation, and treat skin for insect bites, burns, cuts and bruises.
Witch hazel is still used today as a popular ingredient in many skin lotions, soaps and hemorrhoid cream.
Witch hazel plants are readily available at most garden centers and nurseries. Visit www.grownative.org for a list of native plant suppliers.
While there are also Asian species as well as hybrids and cultivars, the native species are just as showy and desirable in our landscapes. Plant them where you will be sure to appreciate them during the winter months.
Gilberg is a horticulturist, landscape designer, and professional member of Grow Native!, a program of the Missouri Prairie Foundation
BURSTING with yellow: The native witch hazel overflows with color and aroma during the winter months in Missouri. It offers a pleasing sight and scent to any garden or wooded area.
This article published in the January, 2013 editionof MISSOURI RURALIST.