Witch Hazel Tree

The Unusual Qualities of the Witch Hazel Tree

Perhaps it is due to the bewitching qualities; perhaps it is simply the unusual blooming habits that bestow upon the witch hazel tree its name.  Regardless of how the name came about, there can be no question that this plant will add a unique presence to your landscape.

For centuries, the medical powers of this plant have been recognized and widely used.  Cherokee tribes among other Native Americans used the tannin contained within the leaves, bark and limbs of the witch hazel to treat many skin conditions.  This astringent is still used in many commercially prepared medical lotions and tonics today for skin treatments, although its actual effectiveness is questionable. 

More than for its medical properties, the esthetic value of the witch hazel tree is highly appealing.  A most unusual feature of the tree is that it actually blooms at a time that virtually no other plant does; in late fall and continuing into the winter season.  Blooming can continue even into the tree’s dormancy.  Lovely yellow petals, thin and airy, brighten the normally drab stage of the season when all other plants are preparing to hibernate for the winter.  Not only does the color lighten an otherwise dull season, but at a time when the smell of fall fills the air, the flowers of the witch hazel scent the air with a delightful fragrance.

Even more incredible is that the plant (which is actually classified more in the shrub family than that of a tree) will both bloom and dispel its seeds at the same time, often during the dormant stage of the tree.  The seeds are from its previous season; maturing over the spring and summer months.  Whereas many seed pods or seed heads merely open and allow the wind or wildlife to distribute them, the pods of the witch hazel burst forth with a “pop”; sending the miniscule black seeds over 30 feet into the air.  With an entire year necessary to ripen these seeds, the cold dryness of fall signals to the pods that it is time to release them, even though they will not germinate for another two years. 

The visual appearance of this shrub presents something that is rather that of a spectral nature.  Contorted limbs seem to writhe about the stem in an eerie and alarming fashion.  Combined with the fact that the shrub comes alive around the time of the Halloween celebration, the witch hazel tree is often associated with the supernatural.  Its branches are also often reported as being mystically powerful in detecting minerals underground; gold, silver and other types of precious metals are said to be detected by using the wood as a sort of “divining” rod.  In reality, the witch hazel can be classified as either a small tree or a large shrub.  They can reach heights of up to 25 feet, emerging from the ground and separating into several slender trunks that meander up and out to form a rounded crown.  Their late bloom period actually makes great use of insects that still remain in the cooler season; gnats and flies act as pollinators for the blooms on the tree. 

If adding this unusual shrub to a landscape sounds appealing, it can be purchased from a number of nurseries online in sizes ranging from one gallon to five gallon pots or as seeds.  With its fast growth rate, propagating this plant by seed is actually easier than with most shrubs.  The plant is easily adaptable to a variety of different types of soils, although best results are seen with slightly acidic soil.  It can tolerate mild drought, but regular watering will produce higher quantities of the fragrant blooms in fall.

Bewitchingly unique and highly unusual, the witch hazel tree will command attention as part of any landscape, and bring a breath of life to the normal hibernation of autumn.



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