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Witch Hazel - Spell in Winter, When the Shrub Can Bloom

Witch Hazel (Latin Hamamelis) is a shrub that is not afraid of frost and snow at all.

Surely Witch Hazel will charm many people because of its spectacular flowers appearing in an unusual time of the year. How else can you descibe the feeling of a flowering shrub in the middle of winter if not 'enchantment'?

I found out about Witch Hazel winter shrub, while walking in my favourite park and feeding birds and squirrels.

You probably are wondering what could catch my attention in the middle of winter in the park?

I think it would catch the attention of anyone who sees it among the leafless trees and bushes. Covered with almost crystalline hoarfrost, the shrub with flaming red flowers stands out against the background. It is very unusual and even weird for any shrub or tree to flower in the middle of winter.

Witch Hazels are hardy, slow-growing and deciduous shrubs or small trees that can grow up to 2 or 3 meters in height. The origin of Witch Hazel shrubs is Asia and North America.

They produce exquisite, sweetly scented, long-lasting and frost-resistant flowers.

The tufted flowers, depending on the species and variety, develop from late autumn to March and are yellow, orange or red in different shades.

Flowers withstand temperatures as low as - 10°C and can also develop under snow.

Witch hazel leaves are similar to hazel, turning golden-orange in autumn and may remain on the shrub until it blooms. The flowers are less visible with those leaves.

As a landscape architect and gardener by passion, I am sure that I have seen a red variety of this shrub, probably the 'Diane' with large, carmine red flowers that are densely set on twigs.

Witch hazel flowers are very unusual. They consist of ribbon-like and sometimes twisted petals with a characteristic smell. These petals curl during frosts to return to full splendour when temperatures return to positive numbers.

This plant has different names in many languages and some of them are associated with the names of magic spells and witchcrafts. These spooky names include ‘’witch nut’’.

It blooms in the winter when all pollinating insects are hibernating.

Witch Hazel is a strange plant for another reason. It blooms in the winter when all pollinating insects are hibernating. You may wonder how it is pollinated.

I read somewhere that they are pollinated by shivering moths that are active on winter nights. These moths use their own energy to shiver to raise their temperature to 50 degrees so they can fly and search for food. When the witch hazel is finally pollinated, it sometimes takes up to two years for the seeds to settle in one place and then grow into new plants. This is because the fruit of this shrub bursts with a great crack and the seeds are spread up to 10 meters away and into different type of ground.

What does witch hazel stand for?

Another interesting fact is that this plant was used by the native people of North America for healing purposes and to protect against evil powers. Wands made from its branches were used by shamans to detect water veins and minerals. They would observe if the branch twisted or dipped and they believed that this a sign that they had found water. This practice was called ''water - witching'' and is believed to be what led to the plant`s common name ‘’Witch Hazel’’.

This plant is very resistant to pest attacks and phytopathogens, and it can defend itself without the help of chemicals.

In the past, the same shamans and folk doctors that I mentioned ealier used witch hazel to heal sores, bruises, wounds and some tumours. Nowadays, the bark of this plant is a wonderful cosmetic remedy for skin ulcers and acne and is used as a natural cream, tonic, and ointment.

Thanks to witch hazel, we can have everything at once - winter, flowers and fragrance. Therefore, no other plant can beat witch hazel.

Have you ever seen this shrub blooming in winter?

red ribbon like flowers red petals on twig
Witch Hazel twig, © AGNES ROMANIUK

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