By Matt Gibson & Erin Marissa Russell
Gardeners in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 have the option of common witch hazel as a small autumn-blooming tree or privacy shrub with a rounded crown that is naturally resistant to insects and disease because it is a native plant, while still being just as attractive as a forsythia. (Some gardeners in Zone 9 report success with common witch hazel in their gardens as well.)
Common witch hazel is native to North America, with its home territory stretching from Canada south to Georgia in a swath from Arkansas to Nebraska with the Appalachian Mountains as its focal point. As an indigenous plant, common witch hazel rarely struggles with diseases or garden pests, making it a low maintenance choice in the garden.
The common witch hazel tree produces fragrant yellow or burgundy firework-shaped flowers for two to four weeks, starting in November, which is also when the foliage begins to shift in shade. Plants stretch to heights of 20 to 30 feet tall with a spread of 15 to 20 feet.
Foliage grows large, with leaves between three and five inches, and is green throughout summer but transforms to vivid yellow in autumn. The tree’s thin tan bark can be peeled back to expose a red-purple shade inside. In the vernacular, common witch hazel is sometimes known as snapping hazel because when the seed pods ripen, the explosive discharge can send seeds flying up to 30 feet away.
Varieties of Witch Hazel
In addition to the common witch hazel, also called American witch hazel, that this article focuses on (Hamamelis virginiana), the witch hazel plant takes other forms that gardeners may choose to plant instead.
- Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis): When bred with Japanese witch hazel, Chinese witch hazel is responsible for the many hybrid varieties (Hamamelis x intermedia) that make up the kaleidoscopic spectrum of foliage and flower colors available as well as the range of heights on the market.
- Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica): Crossed with Chinese witch hazel, Japanese witch hazel creates the witch hazel hybrids (Hamamelis x intermedia) that offer so many different heights and visual options to gardeners.
- Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis): This variety of witch hazel blooms in February, as opposed to the autumn-blooming common witch hazel. It is native to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and Missouri. Although the blossoms of Ozark witch hazel are smaller than its relatives, they are known for their intense fragrance. Notable cultivars include “Autumn Embers” for its coppery red blooms and “Purple Ribbons” with its thin strips of purple petals.
Growing Conditions for Common Witch Hazel
Like most native plants, common witch hazel isn’t especially picky when it comes to where it should be planted. You can situated a witch hazel tree in most types of soil, from slightly acidic to neutral, as long as the ground offers enough drainage to prevent the roots from staying too wet. For best results, plant witch hazel where soil is rich and deep. witch hazel trees grow best in full sun or full shade, although they will grow well in sun at three-quarters strength as well. At least a touch of shade to protect trees from the heat of the afternoon is appreciated.
How to Plant Common Witch Hazel
A lot of patience is required to grow witch hazel from seed, as germination can take up to two years. In the wild, germination still takes a lengthy 18 month period. In order to get your witch hazel seeds to germinate, you must create environments that mimic the cold and hot temperature fluctuations that the seeds experience in the wild.
Lightly cover fresh seeds in a container with soil and keep the temperature at 85 degrees fahrenheit for two months to mimic the summer heat. Next, move the seed container into a refrigerator for three months to simulate winter. During the entire summer and winter simulations, keep the soil evenly and moderately moist but never soggy, or wet.
After the seeds experience their simulated summer and winter exposure, you can pull them out of the refrigerator and move them outside, as long as the temperatures in your area are 75 degrees or higher. With a little luck, germination should most likely begin after an additional two to three months outside.
Place your seedlings in a partial shade location until late in the summer, then gradually introduce it to a full sun locale before transplanting to its final home into the full sun in your garden beds. Patience is still a requirement even after germination, as witch hazel is a very slow grower, producing only four to twelve inches of length per year. Six years of growth is needed before the plant can reach its mature flowering size.
Care for Common Witch Hazel
Once established, witch hazel plants are practically maintenance-free. Hardy to zones three through nine, witch hazel only needs regular watering during the first year of growth, making sure that the soil is slightly moist, but never wet or soggy, at all times. Aside from regular watering, witch hazel can be pruned to shape it however you wish. There are no other care requirements for growing witch hazel.
How to Propagate Common Witch Hazel
Witch hazel can be propagated by grafting, seed or by cutting, or layering. After one year of flowering, the plant starts producing small, half-inch long, fruit capsules. When the fruit dries out, it is essentially a seed pod which is ready for planting. For more on how to propagate by seed, including seed germination instructions, refer to the, “How to Plant,” section above.
Most witch hazel that can be purchased commercially can be grafted onto witch hazel rootstocks, which is the reason why purchasing the small plants can be so expensive, as grafting is a very involved process. Grafting witch hazel plants can be attempted at home, but the success rate is quite low and the process is very tricky. However, if successful, you will have a witch hazel plant that will be capable of flowering in just four or five years time.
Propagating witch hazel by cutting can be a daunting task and is only recommended for professionals as cuttings are a challenge to root, and to even keep from wilting and dying. Take at least six inch long softwood cuttings around mid-spring and root in a soil mix that has better than average drainage, like a mix of 40 percent peatless compost, 30 percent perlite, and 30 percent bark compost.
Cover the cutting with a polythene tent or use a mist bench approach to provide a humid environment to encourage rooting. Use a heated propagator or other means, to provide a bottom heat source of 68 degrees F. Allow between eight and ten weeks for rooting to take place. Keep the cuttings in the specialized substrate through the cold season that first year,and don’t plant into a regular potting soil until spring comes again one year after planting. You can also propagate witch hazel by layering existing plants.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Common Witch Hazel
One of the benefits of growing native plants like the common witch hazel tree is that these species don’t tend to require a lot of fuss or extra care from the gardener. In many ways, indigenous plants almost care for themselves since they are acclimated to the environmental conditions, and they don’t tend to struggle too much with the diseases or garden pests that can spell disaster for many other plants. Gardeners of witch hazel should know that the trees can develop galls on their lower foliage when they’re positioned near birch trees. Other than this quirk, it’s rare that a witch hazel tree will see much trouble in the garden—but if it does, the trouble is likely to come from one of the following pests or illnesses.
- Caterpillars: If you’re seeing defoliation (loss of leaves or holes in leaves) on your witch-hazel tree, caterpillars should be your prime suspect. Luckily, there are lots of simple and cost-effective ways to battle these pests. A sprinkle of diatomaceous earth is a favorite method for many gardeners because DE is all natural and safe to use around children and pets. Read more about fighting off these familiar garden pests in this article [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/fight-caterpillars-garden/].
- Japanese Beetles: Japanese beetle damage is easy to recognize because these bugs eat away the parts of leaves between the main veins and leave the threadlike veins behind so that just the leaf’s skeleton remains on the tree. You can protect your plants with physical shields like row covers or drop cloths. To get rid of the beetles, you can also create or purchase traps using the scent of fermented organic material. Find out more about keeping Japanese beetles at bay in our article here [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/get-rid-japanese-beetles/].
- Leaf Gall Aphids: The galls witch hazel plants often develop when they grow near birch trees are actually insect nurseries for the witch hazel leaf gall aphid. This insect is also sometimes called the witch hazel cone gall aphid. Inside these structures in the witch hazel’s leaves, baby aphids grow to maturity and eventually create the next generation of aphids. Preventive measures such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oils are recommended because once the galls have appeared, it is too late to prevent the outbreak and gardeners must work to end the cycle before the next generation of aphids is born and the problem begins to spread. Learn more about protecting your plants from aphids in the article All About Aphids, and How to Kill Them.
- Leafminer: Leafminers eat through the foliage of affected trees and leave behind trademark tunnels, at the end of which an eagle-eyed gardener can spot the offending insect. You can treat against leafminer insects using a homemade spray made of a liter of warm water, four or five drops of dish soap, and a teaspoon of neem oil. Get the details on defending your garden from leafminers in this article.
- Powdery Mildew: Powdery mildew is the common name for a group of fungal diseases with similar symptoms. These diseases are highly recognizable for the talc-like powdery appearance of the fungus as it spreads across the plant tissues. If you insepet the powder very closely you will see the tiny spheres that hold the fungi. Treat powdery mildew with sulfur, potassium bicarbonate, or neem oil. For more information on how to stave off powdery mildew, check out this article.
- Rots: Rot diseases can affect any part of the plant, from roots to crown, and are most often due to a fungus. Overly wet conditions set the stage for these diseases and help them spread once they take hold, so the best way to prevent and treat rot is to ensure the environment is not overly moist. Water plants from the base to avoid splashing foliage, prune trees to allow sunshine and airflow to circulate throughout the crown, and provide a place for trees to grow that has plenty of drainage and does not keep roots wet. Learn more about staving off rot diseases in our article How to Fight Crown Rot Fungal Disease in the Garden.
Although witch hazel may not be the first ornamental shrub that comes to mind for many gardeners, its ease of care and adaptability to so many soil conditions make it a versatile choice. Beginners will appreciate how little fussiness witch hazel trees require, and expert gardeners will find lots to love among the many hybrid and naturally occurring varieties there are to choose from. The blooms of the witch hazel tree lie along the plant’s outer edges, making their unusual shape best examined up close. Many witch hazels have foliage that changes color, flowers that emerge and bloom in a spectrum of hues, and those explosive seed pods as a grand finale. The witch hazel tree along a garden path or near the front door invites the viewer to take a moment away from their daily routine to observe the inherent beauty of the changing seasons.