Hello fellow readers,
Blooms beyond the white and grey of winter are emerging and one of the first to appear, with tiny mops of late winter blooms, is witch hazel. The same plant that makes the staple astringent on hand next to your bottle of rubbing alcohol and peroxide. However, the late-winter or early-spring bloomers are hybrids of mostly Asian species. It’s the native Common or North American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), naturalized throughout most of the eastern US, that’s used to make the old tried and true. Common witch hazel, seldom severely damaged by deer, grows fifteen feet tall and wide in sunny landscapes, and a looser, twenty-to-thirty foot in native, shadier spots. Often included in conservancy projects such as The Point Garden in Pittsburgh (as we spoke about in the August column titled Urban Gardens), they’re underused in our own gardens. Their cream to yellow, narrow petaled, crinkly fall flowers infuse the air with a sweet and lemony fragrance amongst their golden, fall colored leaves. The blooms often linger longer than their leaves and remain showy late into fall. Witch hazel’s irregular, course textured branching also adds pizzazz to the winter garden.
I visited Greenwood Gardens, a public garden in Short Hills NJ, not long ago and drooled over two winter blooming hybrids. A vase shaped eight to ten-foot shrub with yellow edged and red centered blooms, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Heinrich Brun’s’, named after a German witch hazel breeder. Then there’s a reddish-orange hybrid, H. x ‘Rochester’, that grows ten to twelve-foot-tall. Both are hardy in zones 5 to 8.
Legend has it that the Mohegans showed settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks to find underground water. The dowsing stick bends towards the ground when subterranean water is detected which may seem like a superstition. Yet Curtis Strong, harvester of 80 tons of witch hazel each year and the engineer that automated the EE Dickinson witch hazel plant in Connecticut, claimed he’s used the witch hazel dowsing stick technique to accurately identify locations for twenty to thirty wells in his day.
You can use witch hazel for blemish control, to heal diaper rash, shrink under-eye bags and hemorrhoids (talk about multi-tasking), sooth poison ivy, and to soothe razor burn, sunburn, and dry skin. Even to clean your dog’s ears. All of which may sound too good to be true, though it’s one of the only plants used for medicinal purposes approved by the FDA. For sure one of the biggest benefit of witch hazel, especially those in bloom now, is lifting the winter blues. Garden Dilemmas? Askmarystone@gmail.com