From its mysterious name to its unusual flowers, witch hazel offers many puzzles for its observers. Native to North America, witch hazel grows as a large shrub or small tree. The Missouri Botanical Garden's Kemper Center for Home Gardening describes its height as typically between 6 and 10 feet, with some specimens rarely reaching as tall as 15 feet. Though popular as a landscape plant, witch hazel also provides a medicinal extract.
Witch hazel's scientific species name, hamamelis, means "hooked fruit," according to Ohio State University's Horticulture and Crop Science program. The term arose from a case of mistaken identity, OSU explains, "referring to the curling backward of the dehiscent fruit capsule of another plant very similar in appearance." The common name is more mysterious. In "The Smoky Mountain News," George Ellison recounts three theories. "Witch" may come from an Old English term "to bend," perhaps because of its popularity in dousing. The "hazel" likely arises from the leaves' resemblance to the true hazels, explains the University of Texas at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Unlike most other North American flowering plants, witch hazel blooms in winter. Its unusual flowers have "straplike, crumpled petals," according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. These striking flowers are all the more noteworthy because they persist even after the leaves have fallen. The flowers of H. virginiana bloom between September and January, and those of H. vernalis bloom between December or January and April. George Ellison credits this singular timetable to an evolutionary adaptation: It blooms at a time when few other flowers bloom, which lessens its need to compete for pollinators.
Witch hazel can be used both internally and topically, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Herbalist Maud Grieve cites the value of the tannic and gallic acids found in the plant's leaves and bark. This astringent can ease diarrhoea, haemorrhages and piles, as well as serve as a general painkiller. Also a skin treatment, it soothes and reduces swelling from bruises and other injuries, insect bites and burns. The Mayo Clinic recommends witch hazel for soothing the tears and abrasions resulting from childbirth, noting that it also serves as a common ingredient in topical haemorrhoid treatments.
One reason for witch hazel's popularity among landscapers and horticulturists may be its adaptability to a variety of soils and environments. It grows in a range of climates, hardy in zones 3 to 8, so it thrives from the Deep South to southern Canada. It tolerates shade, and it grows well in poor and even polluted soils. Indeed, the Kemper Center for Home Gardening notes that, in the wild, you may often find witch hazel along "rocky stream beds or at the base of rocky slopes."