The Plant Native

Witch-hazel

Highlights

Native witch-hazels are stunning native shrubs/small trees that flower at strange times: either the end of fall or the dead of winter, depending on the species. The leaves are also beautiful, turning buttery shades of yellow in the fall. Easy to grow, witch-hazels prefer part-sun spots and can grow up to 20 feet tall. Plant one (or a few) in a spot that allows you to enjoy their blooms from the comfort of indoors during colder months.

Part Sun – Shade
8-20′ tall
Winter or Fall Bloom –
Depends on species
Hamamelis species
Witch-hazels bloom when most other plants have gone dormant

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native witch-hazel

Table of Contents

If you’re a beginner gardener looking for a plant that’s both beautiful and easy to grow,  native witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a great choice. This native shrub has a lot to offer in terms of looks, and it can thrive without requiring too much fuss.

In this article, we’ll walk through the four seasons of native witch-hazel, learn how to plant it, and understand some common challenges.

Why is it called witch-hazel?

This native plant has nothing to do with witches, witchcraft, or Halloween, and it’s not related to hazel trees, either. This plant’s common name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wych, which means bendable branch.

These bendable branches were used by early settlers and possibly Native Americans to help detect groundwater and help find spots to dig wells (this type of early stick-finding-water trick is called ‘dowsing’.)

The second part of its name—hazel—comes from its leaves, which look similar to hazelnut tree leaves.

You can tell a lot about the history and beliefs of early European settlers from native plant common names: Pawpaw trees, Joe Pye Weed, and Black-Eyed Susan are other strange common names for beautiful native plants.

Native witch-hazel vs. non-native witch-hazel

Witch-hazel shrubs are found all over the world, mostly in North America and Asia. All witch-hazels are in the Hamamelis genus. 

Non-native witch-hazels

If you’re looking to plant native, you may need to pay attention to the Latin plant names when you’re buying witch-hazel. Stay away from:

  • Hamamelis japonica: native to Japan
  • Hamamelis mollis: native to China

Native North American witch-hazels

There are three witch-hazel species native to North America:

  1. Eastern Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
  2. Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
  3. Big-leaf Witch-hazel (Hamamelis ovalis)

Big-leaf Witch-hazel is an extraordinary plant—it was just discovered in 2004! It has a tiny native range nestled alongside a creek in Mississippi and it’s not available in nurseries (yet.)

Because of the Big-leaf’s tiny range, we’re going to focus on the two other native witch-hazel species, which have huge native ranges and are commonly found in plant nurseries. See below to meet them both:

Native witch-hazels

Ozark or Spring Witch-Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis

Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel

Hamamelis vernalis

  • Blooms in winter (Jan/Feb)
  • Yellow-red flowers
  • Leaves turn reddish/orange
  • Not as tall: 10 feet
  • Native to the Midwest from Missouri to Arkansas, and east to Oklahoma
Eastern Witch-Hazel - Hamamelis virginiana

Eastern Witch-hazel

Hamamelis virginiana

  • Blooms in late fall (Oct/Nov)
  • Yellow flowers
  • Leaves turn yellow
  • Gets tall: up to 20 feet
  • Huge native range from Quebec east to Minnesota and south to Florida

When do native witch-hazels bloom?

Native Witch-hazel bloom time depends on the species.

  • Eastern Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms in the late fall (Oct/Nov)
  • Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) blooms in the late winter (Jan/Feb).

To ensure you’re planting the native witch-hazel you want, make sure the name on the label matches the Latin name.

Witch-hazel cultivars

There are many Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel cultivars—or plants that have been curated by humans (here is a short cultivar overview.) These witch-hazel cultivars offer different leaf and flower colors. (Strangely, according to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, no cultivars for the Eastern Witch-hazel exist, as of yet!)

The Plant Native strongly encourages planting true native plants over cultivars. That said, a native cultivar (sometimes called ‘nativar‘) is always better than a non-native plant. Some Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel cultivars you may encounter include:

Native vs. cultivar

Plant true native plants whenever possible. Cultivars (short for CULTivated VARieties) are selected and made by humans and do not offer the same benefits to bugs, birds, and animals that native plants do. 

Witch-hazel’s healing properties

No doubt you’ve seen witch-hazel remedies in drug stores or beauty aisles. Witch-hazel has been known and used for its healing properties by Native Americans for thousands of years.

According to Marjorie Harris’s excellent Botanica North America, “The Osage used the bark to treat sores and ulcers of the skin much as we do today. The Potawatomi and Menominee used the twigs, either placed on hot rocks in a sweat lodge or boiled in water, to soothe aching muscles. The Mohegan used a decoction of the leaves for cuts, bruises, and insect bites.”

All this, all from Witch-hazel!

Witch-hazel helped start an American beauty icon: Ponds

Back in the 1840s, a man named Theron T. Pond from Utica, New York, began making tea from witch-hazel bark, called it “Pond’s Extract,” and marketed it as a salve for dozens of ailments. The business he started with that first witch-hazel product is still around today: Pond’s.

Witch-hazel throughout the seasons

Witch-hazel changes dramatically throughout the seasons, always giving something to enjoy.

This type of seasonal change is always a welcome sight, especially compared to boring non-native evergreen shrubs that normally fill landscapes, like boxwoods or yews.

Winter

In January and February, Ozark or Spring Witch-hazels bloom with yellow-red flowers—even in regions with snow. They are some of the earliest native plants to flower in the Northeast and Midwest.

Summer

In the summer, both Witch-hazel species fill their branches with leaves, providing shade. 

Fall

In the fall, Ozark or Spring Witch-hazels leaves turn yellow before falling. Their sculptural branches look amazing even without leaves, and provide the perfect canvas for their flowers in the late winter.

Late fall/early winter

In the late fall, Eastern Witch-hazels blossom with yellow flowers alongside buttery yellow leaves. Their flowers smell amazing.

Witch-hazel is a host plant for dozens of butterflies and moths

Native witch-hazels are host plants to 69+ species of butterflies and moths. Without witch-hazels, these native animals would not survive.

Where to plant witch-hazel

Witch-hazel is a plant you want to see in the fall or winter when almost everything in the garden is brown and dormant. Plant them where you can see them while inside your house. 

Planting tips for Eastern Witch-hazel

There are so many great plants to pair with witch-hazel, two favorites are:

  • Aster. Asters bloom in the fall in blue or white, a perfect pairing with Eastern Witch-hazel’s yellow leaves. 
  • Alumroot. Alumroot is a mostly evergreen, short native flower that likes shade and flowers in the early spring. 
  • Both of these plants are perennials, so plant once and enjoy for years to come.

Planting tips for Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel

Carolyn Harstad, in her excellent book “Go Native,” also offers some helpful advice for Ozark Witch-Hazel pairings:

“Plant H. vernalis where you can enjoy viewing it from inside your warm, cozy house, and give it an underpinning of spring-flowering crocus and daffodils for a spring ‘pick-me-up.”

Thank you Carolyn for such a stellar recommendation, perfect for the drab days of early spring!

What to plant with witch-hazel

There are so many native flowers, shrubs, and trees that look stellar next to witch-hazel. To keep the blooming going, pair with native Azaleas, Mountain Laurel, and Ninebark, alongside Redbud, Sweetbay Magnolia, and Winterberry. You’ll have something to enjoy all year long.

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

ninebark-5755860_1280

Ninebark

redbud-tree-in-bloom-native-tree

Redbud

A white Sweetbay Magnolia flower blooming, photographed growing on a branch of the Sweetbay Magnolia tree.

Sweetbay Magnolia

#image_title

Tulip Poplar

#image_title

Winterberry

Native witch-hazel is a fantastic addition to any garden, delivering year-round beauty with minimal effort. Whether it’s the memorable spring flowers, the vibrant fall foliage, or the elegant winter structure, this shrub offers something every season. By understanding its simple planting needs, you can easily enjoy the wonders of native Witch-hazel for decades. Explore our plant library to find more native favorites. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
02/19/2024
Popular FAQs
native-garden-with-obedient-plant-pairing-black-eyed-susans

Lawns vs. Native Gardens — What’s easier?

Save yourself hours of time
monarch-butterfly-on-a-common-milkweed-plant

Native Host Plants for Butterflies

Help the butterflies!
A Southern Magnolia tree's evergreen leaves are shown with small white flowers in bloom.

Native Magnolias: A Beginner’s Guide

Meet all eight
Heuchera 'Peach Flambé' by Acabashi

What is a cultivar?

And why does it matter?