Sunday, November 20, 2011

Witchhazel - the original fringeflower

Despite the wide-spread distribution of American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in Georgia, I have not had an opportunity to see it in flower until this past week when we found it on a GNPS rescue site.  What a beautiful and delicate flower it is!  The four-petal yellow flowers appear after the leaves have already fallen, creating an almost sculptural arrangement on the bare branches. The flowers are considered lightly fragrant.

American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witchhazel is a large shrub or small tree that is found throughout the eastern United States as an understory plant in upland mixed hardwood forests.  It is usually found with oaks (Quercus spp.) and our site was no exception – the oaks found on this site included Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), Chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), Black oak (Quercus velutina), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), and White oak (Quercus alba).

Witchhazel leaves are alternate, simple, lobed, and deciduous.

Leaves of Hamamelis virginiana
I think the winter twig is rather distinctive with it's naked terminal bud (that is, it has no special bud scales - those are the actual leaves that will unfold in spring).

Winter twig of Hamamelis virginiana

As I mentioned earlier, the distribution in Georgia is quite remarkable – it is found from the Blue Ridge down through the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain.  If it were not such a modest looking plant most of the year, I’m sure more people would be familiar with it.  It is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family.  It’s physical resemblance to Fothergilla (commonly called witchalder), another member of the same family, is to be expected, but I was surprised to find that it is also in the same family as Sweetgum (Liquidambar).

Distribution of (H. virginiana), courtesy of USDA Plants Database

In addition to the unusual late-fall flowering time (November in North Georgia), the development of the seeds is also quite unusual.  Although pollination occurs in the autumn, fertilization does not occur until later, so the fruits develop during the summer of the next year, becoming ripe almost at the same time the new blooms appear. When the fruits are ripe, they burst open, forcibly ejecting two shiny black seeds some distance away.   Supposedly the sound of the event is loud enough to be heard if you are nearby.

The top of a 10 foot plant, held down for a picture

There are a few cultivars of the native eastern witchhazel available.  Look for H. virginiana 'Harvest Moon' and ‘Little Suzie’.  H. vernalis is the late winter/early spring blooming Ozark witchhazel, native to the southwest; you may find forms of that also.  The blooms are yellow with reddish/purplish accent and are known for good fragrance.   

Beware of accidentally getting the Chinese species, H. mollis – cultivars and hybrids of it are quite common, including H. x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'.


  1. If one must "hold down" a shrub to take it's picture...well, perhaps it is a sign that the shrub should not to be photographed.

  2. Or that one should aspire to be taller - like you!

  3. Very imformative, as always, I've never seen Witch Hazel in the wild or at a nursery.

  4. How great to see this growing in the 'wild'. I have never, partly b/c it's barely native to our state. I'm so glad you mentioned Chinese species.