witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Hamamelis macrophylla Pursh
Hamamelis virginiana L. var. henryi Jenne
Hamamelis virginiana L. var. macrophylla (Pursh) Nutt.
Hamamelis virginiana L. var. parvifolia Nutt.
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name for witch-hazel is
Hamamelis virginiana L. Two varieties have been recognized: 1) the typical
variety, Hamamelis virginiana var. virginiana and 2) the "prairie penin-
sula" variety, Hamamelis virginiana var. parvifolia Nutt. However, not all
authorities agree with this assessment. Hamamelis virginiana exhibits a
complex range of variation, not easily reconciled taxonomically, especially
in the leaves and flowers. In the northern part of the range, the leaves are
larger, averaging 9 × 2.6 cm, the petals are bright yellow, and the plants
are normally shrubby. In South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, the leaves
are usually smaller, averaging 6.2 × 4.1 cm, the petals are distinctly pale
yellow, and the plants sometimes attain small tree proportions, to 30 cm in
trunk diameter. Such plants have been referred to as Hamamelis virginiana
var. macrophylla . On the Ozark Plateau, Hamamelis virginiana and
Hamamelis vernalis are sympatric. There the petals of Hamamelis virgin-
iana are often reddish at the base, indicating the role of hybridization in that
part of the range. Infraspecific taxa are not recognized for Hamamelis
virginiana because no consistently defined pattern of variation or geographic
correlation can be identified with this plant. The Atlas of Virginia Flora lists
Hamamelis virginiana without variety. For the Nature Guide only one
species is described (without variety).
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: This native woody
plant is a shrub or small tree up to 20' tall. It is usually abundantly branch-
ed and rather bushy in appearance. Witch-Hazel may have a single trunk
up to 1' across, or there may be several ascending branches at its base.
The trunk and/or larger branches are grey, relatively smooth, and slightly
wrinkled. The smaller branches and twigs are grey to reddish brown. The
alternate leaves are up to 5" long and 3" across; they are oval to broadly
obovate in shape and wavy-toothed along their margins. The upper surface
of each leaf is medium to dark green and hairless; the lower surface is pale
green and hairless, or pubescent along the major veins of the leaf. The base
of the leaf blade is often asymmetrical. The slender petiole of each leaf is up
to ¾" long. Small clusters of yellow flowers and brown seed capsules devel-
op along the upper branches and twigs. Each flower has 4 yellow petals, 4
yellow sepals, 4 fertile stamens, and a pair of short styles. The tape-like
petals are about ¾" long and linear in the shape; they are often contorted
and twisted, rather than straight. The sepals are much smaller in size,
broadly triangular, and recurved while the flower is blooming. The sta-
mens are quite short. This is the last woody plant to bloom during the fall;
this usually occurs shortly after its leaves turn yellow and have fallen to the
ground. After the flowers have withered away, some of them are replaced
by seed capsules that require an entire year to mature. A mature seed
capsule resembles a brown woody acorn about 2/3" long; the upper third
of this capsule is divided into 4 segments. Inside, each seed capsule has 2
cells; each cell contains a single seed. Mature capsules explode, ejecting the
seeds about 10-20 ft. away. This typically occurs during the fall while the
flowers are blooming. The seeds are up to ¼" long, ellipsoid, shiny, and
black. The root system consists of a woody branching taproot. This woody
plant spreads by reseeding itself.
REGENERATION PROCESS: Witch-hazel propogates itself by reseed-
ing. After maturing the capsules burst open, explosively discharging their
seeds several yards from the parent plant. There is limited dispersal by
birds. The seeds germinate the second year after dispersal.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Witch-hazel is found on a variety of sites
but is most abundant in mesic woods and bottoms. In the western and
southern parts of its range, it is confined to moist cool valleys, moist flats,
north and east slopes, coves, benches, and ravines. In the northern part
of its range, it is found on drier and warmer sites of slopes and hilltops.
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Witch-hazel is a shade-tolerant, mid- to late-
seral species. It sometimes forms a solid understory in second-growth and
old-growth forests in the eastern United States.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: The flowers of witch-hazel open in
September and October, and the fruit ripens the next fall. Shortly after
ripening, the capsules burst open, discharging their seed.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Witch-hazel occurs throughout the north-
eastern and southeastern United States. It extends from the Appalachian
Mountains south to the northern Florida Panhandle and west from the
mountains into Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, western Kentucky,
eastern Missouri, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. At its northern
limit, witch-hazel ranges along the southern border of Canada from south-
ern Ontario to southern Nova Scotia.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Shrub specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
The specific distribution for witch-hazel has not been determined.
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: Witch-hazel is
found on dry woodland slopes, moist woods, bluffs, and high hammocks.
Common tree and shrub associates of witch-hazel include white ash
(Fraxinus americana), blackgum, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia),
blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.),
pepperbush (Clethra acuminata), sweetgum, flowering dogwood
(Cornus florida), and eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana).
Witch-hazel competes with more desirable hardwoods for available
light and moisture. Its dense cover inhibits seed germination of intol-
IMPORTANCE AND USES: The nectar and pollen of the flowers
attract flies, including Syrphid flies, Tachinid flies, Blow flies, Muscid flies,
and many others. Less common visitors of the flowers include moths,
beetles, and parasitic wasps. Because insect visitors can be scarce late
in the fall, the flowers are capable of self-pollination. Several insect
species feed on witch-hazel; some of these are oligolectic. The weevil
larvae of Pseudanthonomus hamamelides feed on the developing seeds.
Two species of aphids, Hormaphis hamamelidis and Hamamelistes
spinosus, form small galls on the leaves. The caterpillars of several moth
species feed on witch-hazel, primarily on the leaves. The dispersed seeds
are eaten by some upland gamebirds (the ruffed grouse and wild turkey),
the fox squirrel, and possibly small rodents. White-tailed deer browse on
the foliage and twigs.
The fruit of witch-hazel is eaten by ruffed grouse, northern bobwhite, ring
necked pheasant, and white-tailed deer. The fruit is also frequently eaten
by beaver and cottontail rabbit. Witch-hazel fruit is a minor fall food for
Hamamelis virginiana was well known as a medicinal plant by Native
Americans. Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois, Menominee, Mohegan, and
Potowatomi tribes used it as a cold remedy, dermatological aid, febrifuge,
gynecological aid, eye medicine, kidney aid, and in other ways. Witch-hazel
was subsequently used by the early European settlers in similar ways. A
tea of the leaves was employed for a variety of medicinal purposes. The
twigs were used as divining rods (water-witching), thus giving the vernac-
ular name to the plant. Modern uses employ both the bark and leaves for
medicinal extracts, lotions, and salves, and a good demand still exists for
the pleasant-smelling water of witch-hazel. The distillate is used to reduce
inflammation, stop bleeding, and check secretions of the mucous mem-
branes. Other witch-hazel products are used in skin cosmetics, shaving
lotions, mouth washes, eye lotion, ointments, and soaps.
Extracts of the twigs were also believed to infuse the imbiber with occult
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Sky Meadows Park
Crooked Run Valley