Witch Hazel is a woodland understory large shrub, rare in Minnesota, reaching from 12 to 20 feet in height having several twisted branching trunks.
The leaves are alternate and on short stalks, broad, rounded and have shallow lobes creating a wavy-looking margin. The base of the leaf is slightly heart shaped (subcordate) but with in-equilateral sides. Leaves have an astringent, bitterish aromatic taste. Mature plants have leaves 3 to 5 inches long, 3 inches wide. The upper surface is a darker green, the underside much paler.
The bark is gray-brown, smooth on small branches, but slightly rougher on larger stems; twigs have many leaf scars. Young twigs are light brown with fine hair. Vegetative buds are 1/3 inch long, light brown, without scales while the flower buds are round, in small stalked clusters.
The ragged looking flowers which usually bloom in groups of three and only in the autumn once the leaves begin to die, are bisexual, 4-parted, with very narrow long yellow petals resembling twisted straps. The cup of the calyx is yellow-green with 4 lobes which reflex when the flower opens. The petals are alternate between the calyx lobes There are four short stamens with yellow anthers contained within the cup along with 4 false stamens (staminodes) that are placed opposite the petals. These carry the nectar. There are two styles with spreading tips. The cluster grows on a short stalk from the leaf axils.
Seed: While pollination occurs in the autumn, the pale brown woody fruit capsule matures only the following autumn after fertilization in the spring. The 2-beaked seed capsule then splits and violently discharges two shiny black seeds, hence one of the common names - Snapping Hazelnut. (See commentary below on the mechanism of seed dispersal). The seed inside the small nut is considered edible. The old capsules remain on the twig. New plants can be started from the seed and should just be sown outside in the Autumn. The calyx lobes do not close again to form a closed seed capsule but instead remain partially open, hence the genus name.
Habitat: Witch Hazel grows as an understory plant in dry to moist soils of deciduous forests. It can tolerate a dense canopy but flowering is best if the canopy has sunny breaks. The plant produces suckering stems but reproduces only by seed. There is considerable variation in size of plant, leaf size, and flower color from south to north in this species range.
Names: The genus name, Hamamelis, is from a Greek name used by Hippocrates for the small southeastern European fruit tree, the medlar, Mespilus germanica, whose fruit resembles the fruiting capsules of Witch Hazel - that is with the inside partially exposed. The species name, Virginiana refers to the state of Virginia from where the type plant for classification was obtained. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' is for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: There is one other species of Hamamelis that is not native to Minnesota - H. vernalis. This is a late winter to spring flowering Witch Hazel, which has flowers that range in color from deep red to yellow and are fragrant. The leaves are less rounded and the root system is stoloniferous, not suckering. At one time it was thought that certain plants in the Garden were that species but the recent plant census indicates that the Garden plants all have the characteristics of H. virginiana.
Above: Drawing of the parts of Witch Hazel from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 2nd photo - A large Witch Hazel at Eloise Butler in its fall colors.
Below: The flowers have narrow strap-like petals; flowers are normally clustered three to a group and rise from the leaf axils. Flowers appear as the leaves begin to die on mature plants, earlier on young plants. Note the short stalk of the flower cluster.
Below: 1st photo - Flower buds about to open. 2nd photo - a Spring leaf
Below: 1st photo - The rounded leaf with small lobes and pointed tip. 2nd photo - The seed capsules, shown in the Spring of the following year, that when mature later in the season will discharge the black nuts which are forming inside the capsule.
Below: 1st photo - Seed capsules forming in Spring of following year. 2nd photo - The gray-brown bark of a large stem, somewhat smooth. 3rd photo - An old twig showing numerous leaf scars.
Below: Former Gardener Cary George with the Witch Hazel blooms of Nov. 16, 1999. The last flowers of the season. 2nd photo - A small specimen recently planted (2008). On older plants the leaves will start dropping before flowering.
Notes: Eloise Butler recorded introducing Witch Hazel to the Garden on April 14, 1910 with three plants obtained from Jewell's Nursery in Lake City, MN. She planted 3 on Oct. 28, 1914 obtained from the Park Board Nursery and 2 more in 1917, same source. Martha Crone planted 4 in 1945, others in 1947, and Witch Hazel was listed on her 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time. The plant is native to Minnesota but the DNR only reports its presence in four counties: Winona, Fillmore and Houston in the SE and Chisago in Central MN. The east side of Minnesota is the extreme western limit of its range in North America. That range is eastward from a line running from Manitoba to Texas. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has planted a number of the species.
Special Concern: Witch Hazel is listed on the Minnesota DNR rare plant list as a "threatened" species. This is the only species of Hamamelis native to Minnesota. The largest known Witch Hazel was found in Bedford, Virginia. It was 35 feet high and 1.4 feet in diameter. (Am. Forestry Assn. 1994) There is a very old Witch hazel growing near Station 31 (pictured above). That tree is on the Minneapolis Heritage Tree list for its champion size. In May of 2000, Gardener Cary George planted a donated young plant on the uphill path to the Upland Garden from the back gate. It was in memory of Betty Bridgman, longtime member of The Friends and editor of the Friends' newsletter The Fringed Gentian™ and a renowned local poet. In 2003 Cary George reported six specimens in the Garden. A number of young plants were installed in late 2008 in the area near the wetland pool; others in 2012 and 2019.
Medicinal: The leaves and bark are used. The leaves were listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (the USP). They are tannic, have gallic acids, an unknown bitter principle and other odorous bodies giving them an astringent, bitterish aromatic taste. The bark has similar properties but was not listed in the USP. These properties were considered useful for checking internal and external hemorrhage, the treatment of piles, and useful for treating bruises and inflammatory swellings. Hence an application of witch hazel extract, applied with a moistened pad of cotton, and applied to an insect bite would soon cause the swelling and pain to dissipate. This extract, if diluted, could be used for eyelid inflammation. In older days, this extract was available from stores as "Pond's Extract of Witch Hazel" and was recommended for many ailments. Modern versions are available in many drug stores.
The Native Americans of the eastern areas used Witch Hazel as a poultice for swellings and tumors. A tea made from the leaves or the bark would be a good weak treatment for complaints of the bowels. Almost any inflamed condition could be treated with Witch Hazel and provide relief. There is considerable mention in Russian Literature of the benefits of this plants, although the plant had to be imported there as it was not native. Its branching form made it ideal for early settlers' divining rods. Additional information in Grieve (Ref. #7) and Hutchins (Ref. #12).
Literature: American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, (1807 - 1892) wrote about this plant in Hazel Blossoms. Read it.
The explosive dispersal of the seed has been mentioned by several prominent writers, among them Edwin Way Teale and Henry D. Thoreau. Thoreau explains how it works. Read their comments here:
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"