Written by Tolly Beck
Tolly Beck is the horticulturist at Lasdon Park and Arboretum in Westchester County. She was formerly a horticulture educator for New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland, NY.
Native Witch Hazel
Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) is a group of woody plants that are the first to flower in midwinter and the last to flower in late fall. Our native Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) blooms on warmer days in February until early March. Our native American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis ‘Virginiana ‘) blooms October to December. Both of these species are hardy in zones 4-8, making them hardy in our area.
The species name of the native Ozark Witch Hazel (H. vernalis) means ‘of spring’ and refers to its’ flowers that bloom in midwinter and are a harbinger of spring. The small, fragrant flowers of this witch hazel are a bright yellow tinged with reddish-orange. They are sometimes mistaken for forsythia flowers that bloom in early spring. Native Americans first discovered that the bark and twigs of this witch hazel have anti-inflammatory properties and used it topically as well as in a tea. The growth of Ozark Witch Hazel can be upwards of 10’ in both height and width and is often planted as an unpruned hedge, in a mixed border, or as a specimen.
Durability and adaptability are important traits of witch hazel. The shrub will grow in full sun to part shade. They do well in moist, well-drained soil but will adapt easily to clay soil. The foliage is a darker green and takes on a golden yellow color in autumn. There are several cultivars of Ozark Witch Hazel with a variety of autumn foliage color. The cultivar ‘Autumn Embers’ has reddish-purple fall foliage while the cultivar ‘Sandra’ has bright orange-red foliage. Both of these cultivars still flower during winter with the typical yellow, four petaled flowers.
At Lasdon Park and Arboretum, several of the native Ozark Witch Hazel are planted in the border on either side of the short, brick path leading from the upper parking lot to the green entrance gate. They flowers unfurl on warmer days in February and will continue to flower until early March. The old leaves will often hang on through winter, making the ¾” fragrant, yellow flowers a bit less visible. It is certainly worth the search. A bright yellow flower in winter is indeed a sign that spring is on its way.