How to Grow and Care for Witch Hazel

Common Name Witch hazel
Botanical Name Hamamelis virginiana
Family Hamamelidaceae
Plant Type Perennial, shrub, tree
Mature Size 15-30 ft. tall, 15-20 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Fall, winter
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 3-9 (USDA)
Native Area North America

Witch Hazel Care

Plant this shrub in early spring or late fall for the best results. A sunny location is ideal, though some afternoon shade will be beneficial in hot areas. Here are the main care requirements for growing witch hazel:

  • Place the shrub in full sun, although partial sun is okay for plants in hot weather zones.
  • Plant in rich, loamy, moist, well-draining soil; slightly acidic soil is best, although it can grow in slightly alkaline or neutral pH.
  • Give water when dry; keep the soil moist but not soggy; humidity should be moderate, as too much moisture can lead to root rot.
  • Feed the soil with compost or give liquid fertilizer monthly during summer.

Light

Full to partial sun is ideal for witch hazel plants. Though they usually prefer full sun, partial shade is best in hot climates with intense afternoon sunshine.

Soil

Witch hazel likes rich, loamy, moist soil conditions but is quite hardy and can adapt to differing soils. These plants can acclimate to acidic and alkaline soil pH levels, although acidic to neutral soil is best.

Good drainage and moist conditions are essential for healthy witch hazel plants. Try adding a layer of mulch on top of the soil to retain moisture.

Water

This shrub prefers consistent moisture but does not do well in soggy soil. Regular watering is essential for young, establishing plants. Once established, natural rainfall should provide enough water for witch hazel shrubs. However, be sure to water these plants whenever there is a drought. If the top of the soil feels dry to the touch, it may be time for additional water.

Temperature and Humidity

Witch hazel is unique in that it flowers during the cold winter months. It is tolerant of a wide range of conditions from USDA zones 3 to 9, thriving in both cold and hot temperatures. Moderate humidity levels are preferred. Witch hazel does not do well in dry, arid conditions, but too much moisture can encourage fungal problems, such as powdery mildew.

Fertilizer

Adding compost to the soil balances the moisture retention and draining ability and adds loads of nutrients to the soil, resulting in rich, loamy soil that is ideal for witch hazel. Throughout the summer, well-balanced, liquid fertilizer can be added monthly for extra nutrients.

Types of Witch Hazel

There are multiple species of witch hazel native to the United States, as well as multiple cultivars of H. virginiana specifically. Here are just a handful:

  • H. vernalis: Native to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas and Missouri, Ozark witch hazel blooms have the most intense fragrance. This species blooms in February, unlike the earlier blooming American witch hazel.
  • H. ovalis: Native to the southeastern U.S., big leaf witch hazel features bigger leaves that look like hazelnut leaves; flower colors are red or maroon; blooms from December to February.
  • H. virginiana ‘Little Suzie’: This smaller variety of witch hazel grows to about five feet tall.
  • H. virginiana ‘Quasimodo’: This variety is even smaller, standing about two to three feet tall.
  • H. virginiana ‘Arnold Promise’: Featuring fragrant light yellow, late-winter blooms with red and yellow fall color, this variety grows to be 15-20 feet tall.

Pruning

Pruning is not required, but the occasional trim-up can help maintain a clean shape and encourage blooming. Prune after the shrub is blooming to promote next year’s bud growth. Remove suckering offshoots at the base to keep this plant clean and tidy.

Witch hazel branches can also be trimmed off right before blooming and brought indoors to bloom as cut stems. Give the cut end a diagonal slice at the bottom and place it in warm filtered water.

Propagating Witch Hazel

The best method for propagating witch hazel is from seed. Stem cuttings are unreliable and very hard to root; this method is rarely met with success. You can also remove suckers that emerge at the ground level near the central stem with an independent root system. Replant them to propagate a new plant. Here’s how:

  1. You’ll need a hand shovel to dig out the sucker as soon as the ground is workable in the early spring before new growth emerges.
  2. Dig around the sucker to pull up as much of its individual root system as possible. Leave the parent’s root system alone.
  3. Replant the sucker and its root system in a new location more than 10 feet from the parent plant.

How to Grow Witch Hazel from Seed

Witch hazel is often propagated from seed, but this process requires a lot of patience. Witch hazel seeds can take up to two years before they germinate. To get seeds started, they must experience the heat and cold of both winter and summer. You can plant these outdoors or mimic these conditions indoors.

  1. Plant freshly harvested seeds in moist soil and lightly cover them with soil. Place the seed in a warm area at around 85 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three months.
  2. Move the seed to the refrigerator and keep it chilled for three months. Be sure to keep the soil moist.
  3. After this, move the seed to a warm area again. You can place it outdoors if the temperatures stay around 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
  4. Germination should occur in another two or three months. The plant should flower in about six years. Keep it in a shady location, then slowly acclimate the seedling to more sun during the summer.

Potting and Repotting Witch Hazel

Witch hazel can be grown in a pot, though it will eventually need to be planted in the ground if you want the plant to reach its full height. Container-kept witch hazel shrubs are perfect for smaller garden spaces and can be moved during the summer to make room for summer-blooming plants.

Once the witch hazel outgrows its pot, move it to a larger pot size or plant it in the ground. Try not to disturb the roots when doing this, as witch hazel does not handle transplanting well. It is best to do this in the spring.

Overwintering

With its unique winter flowers, witch hazel thrives in the cold winter months. To care for witch hazel throughout the winter, occasionally check the plant for any damage caused by rabbits or deer. If damage occurs, a protective barrier can be placed around the plant, such as chicken wire or hardware cloth.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

These shrubs are resistant to most pests and diseases. Aphids, leaf spot, or powdery mildew may attack witch hazel shrubs, but the plants usually do not suffer significant damage.

Cone gall aphids and spiny leaf gall aphids cause unsightly galls on the leaves but are usually not a significant problem. You can leave them alone or treat the leaves with horticultural oil to stop the insect’s egg life cycle.

How to Get Witch Hazel to Bloom

Witch hazel is a reliable bloomer, and it leaves provide color as well. Bright green leaves adorn these shrubs in the summer and turn yellow or yellow-orange in the fall.

Bloom Months

Witch hazel typically blooms from October to March, depending on the weather and the cultivar. Usually, a warm period amid cold weather can spur the plant to bloom.

How Long Does Witch Hazel Bloom?

Witch hazel can remain in bloom for up to eight weeks.

What Do Witch Hazel Flowers Look and Smell Like?

Witch hazel flowers have a lemon-zesty fragrance, though the flowers are not as showy as some other plants. They have strappy, wispy petals that look like hairy spider legs. The petal colors range from yellow to orange to red. Witch hazel flowers have adapted to winter cold, curling up during freezing temperatures.

How to Encourage More Blooms

Shrubs in full-sun locations bloom more fully than those in shadier spots. These plants also need lots of water in the summer for their eventual blooming, so consider mulching around witch hazel to keep the soil moist.

Witch hazel also needs a chilling time below 45 degrees before they flower, and they may bloom earlier in a mild winter.

Caring for Witch Hazel After It Blooms

After its bloom is a good time to prune the plant to encourage new buds for the next growing season.

Deadheading Witch Hazel

There is no need to deadhead spent witch hazel blooms. Deadheading will not encourage more flowers.

Common Problems With Witch Hazel

Witch hazel is an easy plant to care for; it’s low-maintenance once established. It only needs occasional watering and pruning. But, it still needs monitoring of its leaves and stems, checking for bugs, water levels, and suckering.

Leaves Turning Brown in Summer

If witch hazel leaves turn brown in summer, it could indicate insufficient water, drying winds, or fungal disease. Drying winds are caused by a period of moist weather quickly followed by bright sun and dry winds. By giving the plant more water, you can help repair the damage of inadequate water or drying winds. If stems appear to have died, prune the dead or dying limbs.

However, the fungal condition is caused by just the opposite—too much water and soggy roots. To correct saturated soil, add a layer of coarse sand to the soil above the plant’s roots to slow down wet soil conditions.

Remove Suckers

Witch hazels tend to sucker. Dig suckers from the base of the plant as soon as you can work the soil in the spring. Take care to keep the parent root system intact. You can plant the suckers elsewhere to create new plants.

FAQ

    • Witch hazel is a suckering plant that will try to self-spread by suckering or sending out new plant shoots from the main root.

    • If planting witch hazel near your home, grow it at least 15 feet away since it can spread that wide. Locate it on the north side of homes and north-facing slopes to give it some shade. However, its stems can get leggy if planted in too shady a spot.

    • Fall is the best time to plant witch hazel. Witch hazel flowers naturally release their seeds in fall.

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