Many faces of witchhazel
Witchhazel -- Fall color
Arnold Promise witchhazel
Sharing information OLATHE, Kans. — One of the wonderful benefits of Extension is that we have a number of resources to draw upon. This week, Cheryl Boyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of nursery crops for Kansas State University, wrote a wonderful article on witchhazel. It is so interesting that I felt the need to share it with you in this week’s blog. So I am taking no credit for this great information. Enjoy – Dennis
The Many Faces of Witchhazel, by Dr. Cheryl Boyer, K-State Research and Extension
My mother used to buy it when I was a kid. It was a clear liquid used as an astringent. She kept it under the sink and I’d take it out to look at it now and then —the yellow label skin care line and the blue label “T.N. Dickinson’s Witch Hazel: Clean It, Soothe It, Treat It.” It does everything!
A little homework on my part revealed that witchhazel has been, and continues to be, an effective herbal remedy for a variety of skin conditions. It got its start in cosmetics in 1846 when Mr. Theron T. Pond took note of a “tea” created from the leaves and bark of a native shrub and used by the Oneida Indians in Central New York to treat burns and other skin conditions. He named the extract “Golden Treasure.” Later, shortly before his death, he sold the business and the new company named the product “Pond’s Extract,” which is still sold today as “Pond’s Cold Cream” on supermarket shelves everywhere. Check labels on some of your products (Procter & Gamble, Estee Lauder, L’Oreal, Netrogena, Olay, etc.) and I’ll bet you see it in the ingredient list.
That’s what Witchhazel meant to me until just a few years ago. But that’s not all it has to offer. Witchhazel (Hamamelis sp.) is a beautiful, adaptable ornamental plant. Few plants bloom in the dead of winter — forsythia is notable for blooming in the early spring — but Hamamelis is an exception. While forsythia has bright yellow blooms, witchhazel has more yellow/orange/red tones in the small strap-like petals. The fragrant blooms persist for more than a month and resist winter weather. Three species of Hamamelis grow well in Kansas. The hardiest, largest (up to 20-feet tall), and the one from which the witchhazel extract is distilled is the common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It blooms in the late fall, October to December, and sometimes the rich yellow fall color obscures the blooms. This native shrub can be grown in full sun for best flowering or partial shade.
The second and smallest (about 5 to 10 feet tall) of the three species is Hamamelis vernalis (vernal witchhazel). It begins flowering in January and continues all the way through March.
Lastly, we have Hamamelis x intermedia, a group of hybrids with intermediate characteristics usually resulting in early spring flowering like the vernal witchhazel. A popular cultivar, ‘Arnold’s Promise’ has clear yellow flowers with a hint of red in the center. Fall color of Hamamelis x intermedia is a rich yellow to orange/apricot.
Back to the extract industry. Interestingly, witchhazel isn’t farmed in the traditional sense of the word. Hamamelis plants aren’t lined out in rows in a field. They’re still considered brush, part of the forest understory, and are harvested (i.e. cut just above the crown and pulled out of the woods in the snow and scrub, November to April) before being chipped and sold to the distillery. In fact, according to one story I read, there are about 8 families in the witchhazel capitol of the world (East Hampton, Connecticut) that harvest most of the shrubs used in cosmetics around the world. Though witchhazel is considered brush in some parts of the country, it excels as a shrub or small tree in the home garden. I don’t see many of them in residential landscapes, but their winter flowers and brilliant fall color certainly merit more use. Keep your eye out toward the end of this month for the yellow/red/orange blooms of witchhazel.
Thanks again Cheryl for sharing. And by the way our Extension Master Gardener demonstration garden located at our office has both the fall and winter blooming witchhazel plants. Come by and take a look some time.