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Bewitching Blooms

Winter color is just one of this shrub’s many attributes.

You look twice. You cautiously get closer for a better look at this strange apparition at the edge of Ohio wood-lands. It’s November and only a few dead and brown leaves are desperately trying to hold on to deciduous trees. The landscape is gray, the sky is gray.

So what can this burst of yellow blooms in the middle of nowhere possibly be? At its most fanciful, the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), native to Ohio, looks like Dr. Seuss sneaked into the woods with a yellow crayon and drew squiggly French fries all over the shrub. At its best, witch hazel looks as if it were adorned with the waving tentacles of beautiful Chihuly art glass.

Native witch hazel begins blooming in October and November and can often last throughout winter. No one forgets a first encounter, whether in the wild or at an arboretum or park. Melissa White, a volunteer and contractor at the Ohio State University Chadwick Arboretum & Learning Gardens in Columbus, agrees. White is responsible for the research, selection, installation and maintenance of Chadwick’s witch hazel collection.

“We will be in the gardens working in late fall and winter and see people notice the witch hazels from a distance. They just automatically move toward them. They can’t help themselves,” says White, owner of Begonia Park & Company, a landscaping firm in Plain City. “What else blooms in December? They definitely keep the public’s interest.”

Once visitors get over the initial shock and realize that no one tied millions of little yellow crepe paper streamers to the shrub, they want to know more about witch hazel.

Few people are as knowledgeable about the plant as  Tim Brotzman, whose family-owned Brotzman’s Nursery in Lake County’s Madison Village (brotzmansnursery.com) is partly an ongoing, outdoor laboratory for species and cultivars of witch hazels. The wholesale nursery supplies witch hazels for botanical gardens, arboretums, garden supply centers and landscapers across the country.

Brotzman has been fascinated by the shrub for more than 30 years and calls the first time he saw them in abundance “overwhelming” and a “galaxy of flowers.” Today, the nursery can boast of more than 140 kinds of witch hazels, including eight new shrubs he began growing this year. Blooms can be yellow, orange, red or purple. Fall foliage is a brilliant gold.
Brotzman says witch hazels, which usually grow to be no more than 20 feet tall, are underrated and even unknown by many home gardeners. But he understands, because Ohio’s climate doesn’t exactly encourage winter gardening. Also, many retail nurseries will stock only a few types, including Arnold Promise, Diane and Jelena.

Brotzman also knows “hardcore collectors who want all the witch hazels and are always looking for new ones.” Although not as well known as roses or rhododendrons, witch hazels are “like a chorus line waiting offstage, posed to take the spotlight,” according to the nurseryman.

Brotzman counts Barmstedt Gold, Aphrodite, Aurora and Pallida cultivars among his favorites. Gregory Payton, a horticulturist with Dawes Arboretum in Newark, also likes Strawberries and Cream, Ripe Corn, Gingerbread and Ruby Glow.
Winter blooms and the very early spring flowering of some hybrid witch hazels is, of course, the shrub’s claim to fame. But that’s not all that is unusual. 

“In fall, the seed capsules open and shoot seeds up to 30 feet,” says Dawn Gerlica, a field botanist and horticulturist with Holden Arboretum in Kirtland in Lake County. “As a kid I collected them and put them in Ziploc bags. When they exploded, they shot across the street, plastic bag and all.” (A Holden Arboretum plant profile compares exploding witch hazel seed capsules in a paper bag to the sound of exploding popcorn.)

Witch hazels also are extremely hardy shrubs. This spring, the Chadwick Arboretum removed a no-longer-viable 35-year-old ash tree in an area where many witch hazels grew. White says the witch hazels were “dug up, put in containers and then had to wait until the ash was removed and the stump ground up before they could be returned.

“It was also at the worst time — in May — and then there was the drought,” recalls White. “But every single witch hazel is fine. That’s unheard of. You couldn’t do that with any other plant.”

However, even the most vocal witch hazel enthusiasts will admit the shrub may not be right for everyone’s home garden. With a few hybrid exceptions, the shrub doesn’t look all that exceptional in its spring and summer greenery. And its growth habit of spreading limbs may not appeal to those with limited space.

(If that’s a problem, try Hamamelis vernalis ‘Quasimodo,’ a dwarf variety. White believes the “cute little three-feet-by-three-feet shrub will be a future substitute for many flowering shrubs.”)

But witch hazel is certainly not an ugly duckling plant and it does turn into a beautiful swan when it blooms.

Brotzman says those with native gardens will want native species. If hybrids are desired, make shrub choices based on when the shrub blooms, color of flower, fragrance, size of flower, profuseness of flowers, shape of shrub and leaf health issues. Colors can vary from season to season. Reds do not hold up very well in a hot, dry spring, for example. Witch hazels like well-drained soil and a half day’s worth of shade.  
Plant the shrub in spring or fall … and be prepared to be bewitched.


The origin of “witch hazel,” the shrub’s common name, isn’t clear. But one theory says American colonists noticed a similarity of the native common witch hazel to European wych elms and hazel trees. Because of the forked twigs and flexibility of the wood, witch hazel was used for water divining.

The extract of witch hazel bark and leaves has long been known for its anti-inflammatory properties in treating bruises. It is also an astringent to treat minor cuts, scrapes and insect bites. Witch hazel is approved as an ingredient in nonprescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.