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Native Plants: Common witch hazel

Written by Joel Springsteen
    Tuesday, 13 November 2018
Native Plants: Common witch hazel

Common witch hazel (CWH, Hamamelis virginiana) is hardly common in the wild and even less so in landscaping. In Milwaukee County CWH is only found in a handful of older growth forests. This unique large shrub or small multi-stemmed tree blooms October through November!

 The flowers are pollinated by a number of wasp and fly species as well as owlet moths which are active even on cold nights. The flowers also have the ability to curl up when the temps drop below freezing and unfurl again when temps are favorable (*supposedly- although see added snow photos). In addition to its yellow flowers, CWH has very large asymmetric dark green leaves which are food for the caterpillars of more than 15 different moths. 

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Furthermore, CWH has a picturesque v-shaped growth form. Older shrubs may have stems that grow straight up 10-15’ before arching outward, sometimes flattening out in a plane. Some witch hazels hold onto their leaves into the winter while others shed them in mid fall. Flowers pollinated this year will take a full year to form mature seed capsules next fall from which seeds are ejected up to 40 ft. joel1

In the wild witch hazel is usually found on well drained clay slopes, rocky slopes, or ravines in wooded areas, not because it can't grow elsewhere but because that is a niche in which it has a competitive advantage. CWH will grow in a variety of settings in cultivation from full sun (where it requires consistently moist, well drained soil) to full shade (where it can be quite drought tolerant).

CWH should also be planted in a location that is at least partially protected from prevailing winds, which can damage its large leaves. Shrubs which receive several hours of sun each day tend to have more flowers. Several witch hazel cultivars, derived primarily from hybrids of northeast asian species, are sold at nurseries, but our native species is better adapted to our soils and climatic extremes. Another species, vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis) is native to the Ozarks but blooms in late winter/early spring instead of fall.

Joel Springsteen

Joel Springsteen

Joel was born and raised in Papua New Guinea. While in middle school, a project to plant a backyard “rainforest" evolved into a full-blown obsession with habitat restoration. Soon after reaching a peak height of 6ft 2in, Joel moved to Milwaukee. He was amazed to discover that most native plants are conspicuously absent from the city and suburbs. He loves restoring native plant/animal communities because it combines history, ecology, and other disciplines. Joel has a degree in linguistics and is completing a second degree in biology. He has been a land steward at the Center since 2006.

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