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Many varieties of witch hazel available

Posted: January 15, 2012 - 1:09am

When I was growing up, I was always in the woods, streams or ponds in the area surrounding our home. I often received cuts, scrapes or bruises. One of my favorite treatments for sore muscles or minor scrapes was to pull out the bottle of witch hazel. This was initially made from the bark of the witch hazel plant.

Witch hazel is a native shrub that can add value to a landscape. These plants will have a spreading habit with angular or zigzagging branches. The two main reasons witch hazel adds to the garden are the flowers and fall color.

Flowers appear on witch hazel from January to March. The main colors of the flowers are yellow and red. Each flower consists of many narrow, crumpled petals. Some have said that the flowers resemble spiders or eyelashes.

The leaves of witch hazel are 2 to 5 inches long and 2 to 4 inches wide.

Witch hazel flowers best when grown in full sun. Also, it grows best in moist soils that are rich in organic matter.

There are very few insect or disease problems that attack witch hazel. Also, witch hazel requires very little pruning.

As I mentioned earlier, witch hazel is a native plant, but there are two introduced species and one hybrid on the market as well. The first native species is vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis). This species is slow growing. It will have a rounded shape and will get 10 to 15 feet in height. The leaves will be bright yellow in the fall and the flowers are yellow and will be on the plant from January through March. These flowers are very fragrant and resistant to winter cold.

The second native species is common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). This plant will sometimes grow 25 feet in height, but the common height is 10 to 15 feet. Common witch hazel has a high, open, spreading habit. It is often described as straggling habit. It is moderately slow growing. The leaves will be yellow to orange in the fall.

This witch hazel blooms in October and November. The blooms will be golden yellow and very fragrant, but the flowers will be lost in the leaves. This species is the species from which the bark is used to make a liniment for cuts and sore muscles.

Besides native witch hazels, there are two introduced species – Japanese and Chinese witch hazels.

The Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica) will grow 10 to 15 feet high. Its growth habit closely resembles the common witch hazel because it is open and spreading. This species blooms in February and March. The yellow flowers are smaller than the other species and they have a light fragrance. The best attribute of this species is the fall color, when the leaves can be golden yellow, red or purple.

The Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) has a moderate to slow growth rate. The plant can be a shrub 8 to 10 feet tall or it can reach 30 feet. The leaves are more rounded than the other species, and are dark green above and gray and fuzzy on the underside. The leaves will turn yellow in the fall. The flowers are yellow with red-brown sepals. They come out in February through March.

There also is a group of hybrids that are a cross between the Japanese and Chinese witch hazels (Hamamelis intermedia). They will grow up to 15 feet high and bloom from mid-winter to early spring. The problem with this group is that the leaves stay on the plant for most of the winter.

Check with local gardens centers to see if they carry witch hazels. If not, they can order them. Another option is to go online to Woodlanders. It is located in Aiken, but it is mail-order only. It specializes in native plants.

Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at cphillipshort@comcast.net, or at (706) 836-2152.

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