The Witch Hazels (Hamamelis spp.) are a group of deciduous, multi-stemmed shrubs covered with unique, yellow, gold, orange and red flowers in fall to early spring, depending on the species. Most people are more familiar with the winter/spring blooming Witch Hazels of which there are numerous named hybrids and several species of some very excellent plants. The winter blooming Witch Hazels are, for the most part, of Asian origin or are hybrids of the Asian species. Winter/spring blooming Witch Hazels include Vernal Witch Hazel (H. vernalis, vernal meaning 'of Spring'), Chinese Witch Hazel (H. mollis), Japanese Witch Hazel (H. japonica), and the group of many hybrid cultivars (H. x intermedia) resulting from crosses between the Chinese and Japanese Witch Hazels.
In addition to these, there are two often neglected Witch Hazels that bloom in the fall; Common Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and Southern Witch Hazel (H. macrophylla). These delightful deciduous shrubs are U.S. natives and wonderful, garden-worthy plants. Common Witch Hazel is naturalized throughout most of the eastern U.S. while Southern Witch Hazel is found from the Carolinas down through Florida. The medicinal extract 'Witchhazel' is made from distillations of the bark from young stems and roots of Common Witch Hazel. Like the other Witch Hazels, both of these fall-blooming species have unique flowers about 1 inch in diameter with crumpled, very narrow, strap-like petals. The flowers are creamy to bright yellow in color and are very fragrant with a sweet, lemony scent.
While both of these are fall-blooming shrubs, they have quite different habits. Common Witch Hazel is a large, open, spreading plant reaching as much as 20 to 30 feet in the wild but usually seen at closer to 15 feet in a landscape setting, with an equal spread. Wild plants are often quite disheveled in appearance but when grown in full sun in cultivated areas, shrubs are tidier. In the landscape, the coarse, irregular branching becomes a beautiful bonus for winter interest. In the fall, the glossy green foliage turns bright golden yellow. This sometimes occurs just as the flowers are open, making it difficult to see their own canary yellow display. But their fragrance still permeates the air and often the leaves fall while the flowers are still showy.
Southern Witch Hazel is a much more demure shrub than Common Witch Hazel. It reaches 6 to 10 feet with a spread of about 5 feet. Branching is a finer and more dense than that of its larger cousin. The flowers are a light, creamy yellow, smaller and not quite as showy as those of Common Witch Hazel. The soft green foliage is also somewhat smaller (in spite of its botanical name, H. macrophylla, which translates to 'large leaves') with furry undersides. Fall color is a lovely blend of rosy purple, bronze and gold.
Witch Hazels prefer moist soils and will grow well in full sun or partial shade. They are tough plants that will tolerate urban conditions as long as they are not too dry. There are no serious diseases or pests to contend with. However, make sure to move plants either in containers, or balled and burlapped, to avoid problems following transplanting. All of the Witch Hazels are hardy throughout the Southeastern U.S., from coast to mountains.
Vegetative propagation of Witch Hazels is difficult and is probably best left to nursery professionals and serious horticulturists. Cuttings can be collected on very soft, succulent young growth, wounded slightly by scoring or scraping the cut end, dipped in rooting promoter and rooted under mist. However, they may take in the range of 3 months to root and a large percentage of the rooted cuttings will die following rooting. Seed requires two resting periods at different temperatures before it will germinate. But seedlings are abundant under landscape plants so propagation from seed may be less difficult. Fall blooming Witch Hazels are underutilized even though they make beautiful additions to the autumn landscape. Their handsome fall color combines with delightful fragrance and extraordinary flowers for a distinctive display. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), both Common and Southern Witch Hazels perfume and color the Piedmont autumn just as the main path exits the White Garden. Come walk through the Arboretum to see these unique and handsome native shrubs. Once seen, no gardener can resist planting fall-blooming Witch Hazels in their own landscape.