Flowers are getting fewer and further between as the fall season transitions to winter. In my garden, aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is about the last blooming plant that is still hanging on to some flowers after starting to bloom almost a month ago.
However, one native shrub reaches full bloom each November with a canopy full of bright yellow flowers. The odd-looking flowers of common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), with feathery thin petals reaching outward in all directions, are hard to miss and stand out among garden plants this time of year.
This interesting and beautiful native typically bloom in early November each year but is known to be somewhat unpredictable and weather-dependent when it comes to its annual flowering display. I’ve observed flowers in certain years, as early as October and as late as December. Depending on the weather during its bloom period, flowers can last between 2 and 4 weeks.
With such a rare bloom time, witch hazels have always fascinated me. Even their name is intriguing, sparking wonder about how a plant might be related to or referred to in conjunction with witches. However, the common name may not be associated with the frightening character of witches we think of around Halloween time each year.
A mystical name
In most accounts I’ve read, the common name “witch” hazel comes from the practice of “water witching,” also known as water dowsing, that folks have long performed in search of underground water sources.
Traditionally, water witches use a forked twig, held out with palms facing upward and the butt end of the stick facing outward and somewhat skyward. As the water witch traverses the ground surface holding out the twig, the butt end of it is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward as a source of water is passed over, identifying the location of underground water.
Witch hazel became associated with this practice because it is one of the preferred species used by water witches, along with a few other species, such as willow or peach. Some water witches may use wire coat hangers, wire rods, or other metal objects, so forked twigs are only some of the tools employed in the practice.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) notes that the science behind water witching doesn’t add up. Although there is significant human history, with historical evidence popping up around the globe and dating back to ancient times, research has shown that water witches are no more likely to find water than anyone else making an educated guess.
According to USGS, “The natural explanation of “successful” water dowsing is that in many areas, underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water.” However, I still find this quite interesting, sparking wonder about how this practice has been so widespread across history, representing a neat intersection between human culture and the plant world.
Beyond folklore: ecological value
Although witch hazel may not help you find water, it’s still worth planting for its ornamental and ecological value. While the late bloom period is excellent for a yellow splash of color this time of year, it can also be an important late-season source of pollen and nectar for pollinating insects still active in late fall. Flies and wasps are the primary pollinators attracted to common witch hazel flowers, although over 20 native moth caterpillars have been noted to feed on their leaves during the growing season.
Some may characterize witch hazel as a small tree, as opposed to a shrub, since it can reach heights of up to 15 or 20 ft. in cultivation. However, its multi-stemmed and spreading growth habit reminds me more of a shrub. Its crooked, spreading limbs and irregular-shaped canopy architecture provide spectacular ornamental appeal. Top them off with its abundant yellow blooms this time of year, and you have a real showstopper.
Adding witch hazel to your garden
Witch hazel is easily grown in average soil conditions, with a preference for well-drained soils but some tolerance for varying soil or site conditions. It can tolerate full sun to partial shade, although more sunlight will produce more flowers.
The Hamamelis genus has non-native members that flower during unique times of the year. The Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) is native to Missouri and southward toward Texas. It blooms in late winter or very early spring, representing an excellent garden addition for very early-season blooms, perhaps the first plant of the year. There are also Asian Hamamelis species and even hybrids that bloom in very late winter.
If you are looking for a plant with an interesting history and quirky bloom period, consider adding a witch hazel species to your garden space. The stem-hugging, yellow flowers explode along branches like mini fireworks, providing a unique splash of color and blooms for pollinators at a unique time of year.
Photo Caption: Common witch hazel is a native shrub that blooms in late fall when few other plants are flowering. Photo taken by Ryan Pankau, Illinois Extension.
Cover photo taken by Nancy Kreith, Illinois Extension.