When I was a kid, my mother’s cure-all for everything from a touch of sunburn to poison ivy and even a mild fever was witchhazel lotion. It came from the Fuller Brush man who sold his wares from door to door, and along with the brushes and dustpans you could get a bottle of this strange, turquoise-ish looking lotion.
Now like most kids, I was generally pretty uninterested in anything that came out of a tube whether it was sun block, toothpaste or a strange, turquoise-ish looking lotion. But when she popped off the white cap and gently spread some of its contents across your skin, it was like the breath of heaven here on earth. Its fresh, slightly astringent aroma and instant cooling feel just made everything better. Even now, fifty plus years on down the gravel road I can still remember the involuntary, bodily sigh generated by a quick application of that strange, turquoise-ish looking lotion.
Never did it cross my mind that the stuff had any connection to a plant that would capture my heart the way its lotion captured the rest of me as a child.
According to my exhaustive research (ahem . . . about 5 minutes of Google surfing) the essentials of witchhazel come from extracts of dried bark and leaves and can be used as a cure for about a zillion and one things. It seems to be generally soothing for many skin ailments from dryness to irritations and the like. As for the occasional recommendation for internal use for internal or gastric bleeding (WHICH I ADVISE AGAINST BASED ON COPIUS INPUT FROM MY LEGAL DEPARTMENT. NO, REALLY, I MEAN IT. PLEASE DON’T DRINK THIS STUFF!) if you are vomiting up blood I would think a quick trip to the ER, rather than a gulp of witchhazel lotion, would be in order.
Witchhazels are funny plants. They are grown in gardens for their amazing flowers . . . that have flower petals only about as big as a modern day false eyelash. And while modern day false eyelashes seem to be approaching the size of big wave surf boards, I think you get my point. Witchhazel flower petals are quite prized for their show but they are little thread-like affairs.
Seems strange though, that such a diminutive and dainty flower would get so much attention. Most things grown for showy flowers tend to be the “flowers as big as your head” affairs but that’s not the case with witchhazels. Their flowers are rather small, but on some plants they are produced in ridiculously large quantities. And then there’s the added advantage that they just happen to bloom in the middle of winter.
Belonging to the genus Hamamelis, there are a handful of species native to both North America and Asia. Common witchhazel (H. virginiana) is native across the eastern US and is a bit of an outlier in that is produces its fragrant, yellow flowers in October and November. The vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis) is native to the central part of the US and usually flowers copper to pale orange from late January through early April.
Outside of North America you can find the Chinese (H. mollis) and Japanese (H. japonica) witchhazels that resemble our vernal witchhazel in flower form and timning. The Asian forms tend to have larger and showier flowers that range from yellow to orange and fairly bright red. These days, most of the showiest forms are hybrids of the winter bloomers that fly under the nomenclatural flag, H. x intermedia. All are wonderfully fragrant when in bloom.
Most witchhazels form large shrubs that mature between about 8’ and as much as 30’ tall, though 8-10’ is pretty typical for the winter bloomers. The earliest in my garden (‘Early Bright’) a bright golden yellow, sometimes starts to bloom as early as New Year’s week. The latest in my garden (and I only have 2!) ‘Arnold Promise’ can sometimes wait until mid March to put on its show. Both have outstanding fragrance, excellent yellow/orange/red fall foliage color and thrive in anything from full sun to light shade.
One of the amazing things about witchhazel flowers is that because they tend to bloom through winter, they have evolved an amazing ability to withstand frigid temps while in flower. Unlike the early spring blooming magnolias that often get fried by a spring freeze or frost, (maybe even this weekend!) a witchhazel in full flower can handle temperatures down to the teens without damage. Faced with a deep freeze the flowers simply curl up and ride out the cold snap. Then, once things warm up the petals simply unfurl again to continue the show. A single winter blooming witchhazel can put on a show for well more than a month.
In the Cappiello household, witchhazels fill a central role in coaxing both my wife and me out of the winter season, horticultural doldrums. A cut branch forced into bloom in a vase on the dining room table helps keep our focus forward to lighter, brighter and more colorful times. And now, after a number of years of growth on our ‘Early Bright’, its upper branches have reached the height of our second floor bedroom window. Anytime those flowers are showing even the slightest hint of color, we have that window wide open to fill the house with witchhazel perfume. Damn the LG&E bill!
So why isn’t everyone growing witchhazels in their home gardens? Beats me. I think I’ll go call the Fuller Brush man and ask him . . .
This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on March 9, 2022.