Maybe you aren’t familiar with the plant, but you may have noticed Witch Hazel as an ingredient found in after-shave lotion, skin ointments, eyewash, or hemorrhoid medication. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a small tree common in our forests. It’s a small tree, usually only reaching 15 to 20 feet tall, and tends to have a thick, crooked crown with a lot of branching. The leaves are round or oval shaped with wavy edges. The bottom of the leaf at the stem is always offset, that is the leaf edges never meet the stem at the same level. The bark of the tree is light brown and scaly.
Two unusual features of Witch Hazel are its flowers and fruit. Unlike most trees, it blooms in early winter, usually in October or November. The flowers are yellow, thread-like, and appear twisted. When the fruit ripens in early winter, the tree takes a very active role in dispersing the small, shiny black seeds. The fruit bursts open (sort of like touch-me-nots) with an explosive force that can send the seed 15 to 20 feet from the parent plant.
Witch Hazel has been considered a medicinal plant for centuries. The Indians made a tea from the leaves to treat sore throats and colds. A tea made from the twigs was rubbed on arthritic joints. Bark tea was applied to bruises and sore muscles. In modern times an extract of the plant is used as an astringent (causing tissue to shrink) in many ointments.
The wildlife value of Witch Hazel is rather low. The seeds are available from fall into winter, and are consumed by grouse and squirrel. Deer will occasionally browse on the twigs and foliage.
For landscaping, Witch Hazel makes a handsome shrub and would prefer to be grown under the shade of a larger tree.