In southern Ohio it’s a bit startling to see a tree in full bloom at this time of year. Pussywillow and Forsythia are still weeks from showing color, but the “Arnold’s Promise” witch hazel in our garden is ablaze with yellow. Witch hazel look somewhat like Forsythia, but instead of having long drooping shoots they are handsome, upright, vase-shaped shrubs on their way to becoming small trees.
Witch hazel gets its name from the Old English term “wiche”, which means bendable or flexible. The name “witch” was reinforced by the fact that its twigs were often used as divining rods.
Witch hazel extract is a folk remedy used to reduce swelling. Our family uses it to relieve itching and swelling from insect bites or poison ivy. It is also commonly used to treat acne, bruises and scrapes, and is an ingredient in after shave lotions because of its light, spicy fragrance.
In landscapes, witch hazel is a small to medium-sized “clump form” tree or large shrub, similar to dogwood or magnolia. Witch hazel can be used for eye-level privacy screen under overhead wires. It has smooth gray bark and attractive bright green leaves that turn yellow in fall. Witch hazel fruit is favored by birds, particularly grouse, pheasant and bobwhite quail. It is also attractive to deer and rabbits. It will grow in sun or part shade, prefers moist acid soil, and resists most disease and pest problems.
The most superior witch hazel variety in the United States came about almost by accident, a great example of why fruit trees are best grown from cuttings and not from seed. In 1928, Arnold Arboretum botanist William Judd grew seven witch hazel plants from seeds he collected from an old witch hazel tree, itself grown from seeds collected in China years before. As is typical of fruit trees grown from seed, none of the seedlings were like the parent plant.
One of the seven turned out to be much showier than the others, and bloomed in late winter instead of fall. Its yellow flower petals turned downward, another unique trait among witch hazels. Named “Arnold’s Promise” (for the promise of spring) it grew in a shapely, upright clump form with multiple trunks. The original tree still stands on the grounds of Arnold Arboretum, which is part of Harvard University. Every “Arnold’s Promise” witch hazel tree grown today is related to this one plant.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.