Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Wonders of Witch Hazel

yellow flowering Witch Hazel in front of a grey house.

Hello fellow readers, The Wonders of Witch Hazel brightens the dormant landscape, is a tool for Water-Witching, and has mysterious methods of pollinating and dispersing seeds.

I came upon a sunny flowering Witch Hazel along the road, looking stunning, offset by the orangy house behind it. We welcome the reprieve of the tiny mops of flowers bringing color to the predominantly white and grey landscape. The late-winter or early-spring bloomers we see are hybrids of mostly Asian species.

the yellow mop-like flowers of Heinrich Burns Witch Hazel.

‘Heinrich Bruns’ Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermesdia)

Not long ago, I visited Greenwood Gardens, a public garden in Short Hills, NJ, and drooled over two winter-blooming hybrids. ‘Heinrich Brun’s’ (Hamamelis x intermedia), named after a German witch hazel breeder, is a vase-shaped 8 to 10- foot shrub with yellow-edged and red-centered blooms. Then a reddish-orange hybrid, H. x ‘Rochester,’ grows ten to twelve-foot-tall. Both are hardy in zones 5 to 8.

Mary Stone, Garden Dilemmas, Ask Mary The reddish-orange flowers of Rochester Witch Hazel, Hamamelis x ‘Rochester’, Rochester Witch Hazel

Rochester Witch Hazel
(Hamamelis x ‘Rochester’)

One of the most popular hybrids is ‘Jelena,’ also knowns as ‘Copper Beauty.’ Introduced in the early 1950s, it became so adored it received an award of garden merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The flowers are bright coppery-orange, but when you look at them more closely, they also have yellow tips. The fall color is a glorious yellow-orange too.

Witch Hazels are adaptable and flower longer than most 

Witch Hazels are easy to grow, requiring little care other than keeping young plants moist until they establish. They’re adaptable to many soil conditions and tolerate sun, drought, and wind, though they prefer light shade and well-drained, moist soils. A bit of a warning, though– they can produce “unwieldy suckers” if poorly pruned (see below).

I adore the smooth, gray bark, supple green foliage, and vase shape. Witch Hazel blooms far longer than most flowering trees, up to eight weeks or more, which is a fascinating feat of nature. Because not as many pollinators are scurrying about when they bloom, they must be open longer for business.

A yellow flowering Witch Hazel along the road with a historic copper-orange home behind it. They begin to flower during a warm winter spell. Then protect themselves by curling up when temperatures drop. Their citrusy fragrance is a delight though not very noticeable when you’re outside. So bring some branches into your home and enjoy the smell.

Native Witch Hazel can go noticed. 

It’s the native Common or North American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana zones 3 through 8) that blooms in the Fall through December and makes the staple astringent. I came across a swath of the native beauties hiking last October. Their leaves are golden yellow, so the fragrant crinkly flowers often go unnoticed until the glorious gold leaves drop to reveal them. But the flowers linger for months. It seems fitting, based on the mysterious nature of the plant, that it blooms in time for Halloween, a bewitching time of year.

They rely upon wasps, gnats, and flies for pollination as bees and butterflies aren’t around then. It’s fascinating that while they are pollinated in the Fall, fertilization does not occur until spring, and fruits develop slowly through the spring and summer. Then they spit out the seeds in the Fall when the new flowers unfurl. The tiny black seeds fly up to 30 feet all at the same time —a fascinating cycle.

The Legend of “Water Witching” 

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 underground 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’d used the technique to accurately identify locations for twenty to thirty wells in his day. The practice is called “water-witching” and likely led to the plant’s common name.

You can use Witch Hazel for blemish control, heal diaper rash, and shrink under-eye bags and hemorrhoids. It soothes poison ivy,  razor burn, sunburn, and dry skin, and you can clean your dog’s ears. Talk about multi-tasking! It may sound too good to be true, though it’s one of the only plants approved by the FDA for medicinal purposes. One of the most significant benefits of witch hazel, especially those in bloom now, is lifting the winter blues. Garden Dilemmas? and your favorite Podcast App.

Enjoy more of the story in the Garden Dilemmas Podcast:

yellow flowering Witch Hazel in front of a grey house. How to avoid “Unwieldy Suckers.”

Hybrids are grafted on the vigorous rootstock of the native Common Witch Hazel. And so, suckers tend to sprout, so be sure to plant the graft below the surface. And don’t prune the suckers during the growing season, as it will stimulate more suckers. Instead, wait till after the tree has gone dormant.

And another advisory is to not heavily prune a plant, as it causes “unwieldy suckers,” which brings a smile. None of us like to be tampered with, do we? We want to grow and flourish to be our best selves. So like any plant, choose a spot where it can grow and fit beautifully in maturity. If you wish to shape the tree a bit, cut back each desired branch to the last season’s growth after the flowering and remove crossing or rubbing branches.

If you notice a color shift of flowers, the suckers below the graft are taking over the plant. You can’t hate the rootstock for wanting to take over the forced graft. We all want to be who we are at our core, in our roots, though seeing the magic of hybrids and grafted trees is lovely— it’s art!

Witch Hazels are also grown as espaliers. Espalier is the art (or process) of training a plant to grow on a flat plane such as a wall, trellis, or fence.

Witch Hazel is featured at Point State Park, an Urban Garden in Pittsburg, PA.

And part of a lineup in a Front Lawn Alternative

More about  Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, NJ.


Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary

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