On a cold, slushy March day in Providence, Rhode Island, I was walking on College Hill when a blaze of yellow loomed ahead of me, standing out against the background of grey granite buildings. I immediately thought “forsythia,” but it was way too early for that yellow harbinger of spring to be blooming. This was my first encounter with vernal witch hazel, whose fragrant gold or coppery flowers cover its bare branches from late winter to early spring well before the plant leafs out. The yellow or red blossoms, which resemble tiny bundles of shaggy fringe, open if temperatures warm up and then persist through the cold, furling at night to avoid damage from freezing. And, as if having flowers in the waning days of winter weren’t unusual enough, the botanical name Hamamelis, which translates as “together with fruit,” indicates that witch hazel is one of the few trees that can bear fruit, leaves and flowers simultaneously. 

The memory of that long-ago witch hazel introduction popped into my mind recently as I was reading the label of a bottle of witch hazel I’d purchased as a skin toner. While Hamamelis cultivars are prized for winter gardens, the native witch hazel, which blooms in late October and November, is still harvested in parts of Connecticut, distilled, and shipped all over the globe to be used in beauty and health products. Its antioxidant and astringent qualities are known to fight acne, soothe sunburn, reduce under-eye puffiness and speed healing of minor cuts and bruises. Witch hazel can be considered organically grown as it is found wild in the woods and has been sustainably harvested for centuries; in many cases the same plants have been re-harvested every seven years in the Connecticut woods since native Americans first passed on the secrets of witch hazel’s amazing benefits to the European settlers.

Native Americans boiled the branches and bark in water to make a remedy for bruises and insect bites, and today’s witch hazel is produced in much the same manner, albeit on an industrial scale. The woodland plants are cut off a few inches from the ground without disturbing the roots, which encourages rapid re-growth the next year. The trunks and branches are then fed into chippers and delivered as mulch to the manufacturers, who distill the essential oils of witch hazel into a clear fluid and add a natural grain alcohol as a preservative, although there are some forms of the astringent that contain no alcohol. Waste steam from the distilling process heats the manufacturing plant, and the tons of pulp left over from the distilling process are recycled as garden mulch. You can hardly be more sustainable than that.

Native witch hazel, or Hamamelis virginiana, resembles a cross between a gray birch and mountain laurel and grows throughout northern forests. Native Americans called the plant “winter-bloom” because of the distinctive yellow flowers produced in the late fall. The plant grows in clumps of slender tree saplings, with trunks that can reach 20 feet in height. This genus of small trees and shrubs contains five species and close to 100 cultivars, which are native to Asia and North America and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

In the ornamental garden, we look for witch hazel cultivars that have been bred to bloom in late winter. If you want to grow a witch hazel of your own, plan to give it plenty of room, since it can reach up to 15 feet in height and width. Witch hazels prefer well-drained, loamy, acidic soil and full sun to partial shade, although flowering is most profuse when they are grown in full sun. Plant them in the spring or fall and prune after flowering but before summer so that flower buds for the following year have time to form.

Popular witch hazel cultivars include “Arnold Promise,” with bright yellow blooms that have a reddish base. It appears to bloom later than other cultivars. “Diane,” a red-flowering form, bears coppery-red blooms that, unfortunately, may be partially obscured by retained dead leaves. “Jelena” has coppery blooms that lighten to yellow at the tips. This cultivar is also desirable for its wide-spreading habit, making a good hedge material, and for its good orange-red fall color. The highly rated “Pallida” bears light yellow blossoms on a broad-spreading plant. The blooms are pleasantly fragrant and appear early in the season, often by February.