Hamamelis is a winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Its spicy fragrance and spidery flowers in yellow, orange and reds make it a must for the winter garden.
A genus of four species of woody shrubs, two from North America and two from Asia, all flowering in the winter/early spring except for Hamamelis virginiana L. which flowers in the autumn.
The first to be discovered was the American Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, this is the plant from which is distilled an extract, quite widely used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. The other species from North America is the Ozark Witch Hazel, Hamamelis vernalis. From Asia come both the Japanese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis japonica and the Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis mollis. In cultivation, hybrids have arisen, notably between the Japanese and Chinese Witch Hazels, these are designated as Hamamelis x intermedia and many of them have been given cultivar names.
Apart from H. virginiana which flowers in October and November, they all flower in the winter, between December and March, unaffected by frost. Individual plants have a flowering period of four to six weeks, depending how cold the weather is. They are medium sized to large woody shrubs, usually multi-stemmed. The flowers consist of four strap shaped petals, giving them a spidery look. With many flowers clustered along the branches, they provide welcome colour in the drab winter months. Flower colour, particularly in the hybrids can range from pale yellow, through to red and many of them have good scent, from sweet to spicy. An added bonus in many cultivars is the autumn colour of the foliage, which can range from yellow through to orange and red.
The name Witch in witch-hazel has its origins in Middle English ‘wiche’, from the Old English ‘wice’, meaning “pliant” or “bendable”. “Witch hazel” was used in England as a synonym for Wych Elm, Ulmus glabra; American colonists simply extended the familiar name to the new shrub. The use of the twigs as diving rods, just as Hazel twigs were used in England, may also have, by folk etymology, influenced the “witch” part of the name.
The bark and leaves are astringent; the extract, also referred to as witch hazel, is used medicinally. Extracts from its bark and leaves are used in aftershave lotions and lotions for treating bruises and insect bites. Witch-hazel helps to shrink and contract blood vessels back to normal size, hence its use as the active ingredient in many haemorrhoid medications. The seeds contain a quantity of oil and are edible. It is also used in treating acne. Witch Hazel is also used in treating psoriasis and eczema. In addition, Witch Hazel is sometimes found as an ingredient in eye drops.