American Witch-Hazel

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
American Witch-Hazel
Hamamelis virginiana, most commonly known as the American witch-hazel, grows as a small deciduous shrub or tree. Though the species name "virginiana" means "from Virginia," the American witch-hazel is native to the broader region of eastern North America. Multiple branches extend from its base, typically growing about 15 feet tall. The plant is in peak bloom from late October to early November. Its characteristic bright yellow flowers have four thin petals and a calyx that darkens to a red color throughout the flower's development. The American witch hazel also produces fruit that appear as capsules. Witch-hazel has important medicinal uses as it is one of the only plants FDA approved for non-prescription use [1].
Giselle Fisher, Kexin Meng
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Date of tree entry: 
2.07 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.24 m

There are too many multiple trunks to accurately measure the DBH, so this is just an estimate
The bark of the American witch-hazel is relatively smooth, with occasional rough patches, and appears light brown or gray in color (Figure 1). Witch-hazel bark is rather thin, thus many scratches or peeled patches are visible. Unlike larger trees with thicker trunks, witch-hazel bark does not have many vertical lines or fissures. In areas where the thin outer bark has been pealed away, the darker-colored inner bark can be seen.
Twigs & branches
The American witch-hazel grows as a shrub or small tree with many branches stemming from the base (Figure 1). The branches are approximately equal in diameter to each other, and each branch maintains approximately an equal diameter as it grows. Secondary branches form on the branches stemming from the base, and these secondary branches are thinner than those they stem from. The leaves and flowers are mainly concentrated on these secondary branches. The twigs and branches are distilled and incorporated in astringent lotions and skincare products, as well as consumed as nutrients by deer [2].
In the spring, the American witch-hazel grows green, simple, oval-shaped leaves with a pointy tip (Figure 2). The edges of the leaves are also jagged, seeming like a mix between dentate and crenate margins, and the leaf texture is smooth [1]. The venation of the leaves is pinnate, as the secondary veins stem from the midrib. The leaves are arranged in an alternate fashion, and have an asymmetric leaf base as the right side extends past the left. The leaves have pinnate venation, as the secondary veins run parallel to each other. The flowers of the American witch-hazel begin blooming in late October to early November, during which bright, fringe-like flowers can be observed. In the early fall, the tree exhibits a brilliant fall leaf color that persists until the end of the flowering season. By the winter, the leaves have become shriveled and brown, as the flowers droop (Figure 7). In the spring, the flower petals and leaves have fallen from the tree (Figure 8).
Reproductive Structures
The American witch hazel begins flowering in the autumn, between October to December, producing bright yellow flowers with four ribbon-like petals and four yellow sepals. In winter, the witch hazel remains flowered but yellow petals begin to droop and the sepals become red in color (Figure 3). By spring, the petals have fallen off, leaving only the red sepals (Figure 4). These flowers allow for pollination in the autumn, but with fruit and seed development starting from the winter to the following growing season [3]. Thus, in autumn, fruit from flowers of the prior year and new flowers will be present at the same time, thus explaining the genus name "Hamamelis" which means "together with fruit" [3]. The primary pollinators of witch hazel include moths, thus the flower produces a heavy fragrance (Witch Hazel).
The fruits of the American witch-hazel start as velvety green seed capsules, which become woody and brown as they develop (Figures 5-6). Once the seed capsules have finished maturing in the autumn, they split open to release 1-2 black seeds, which can be ejected up to 30 feet away [4].
  • Figure 7. American witch-hazel in February.
  • Figure 8. American witch-hazel in April.
Natural range of distribution: 
The American witch-hazel is native to northeast North America. Its habitat ranges from the Canadian border to northern Florida and as west as Texas [1]. Its native habitat includes moist woods, thickets, and bottomlands and is most commonly found along woodlands and stream banks along the eastern U.S. Witch-hazel found in northern climates grows best in dry, acidic, moist soil of clay or sandy type with full sun to partial shade, whereas witch-hazel in southern states grows best in moist, cool areas [4]. American witch-hazel grows best in temperate forests, so it is common to come upon it along hiking trails or woody paths. Its habitat overlaps with pine and ash trees, which block some sunlight from reaching the shrub [5]. Thus, it has been evolutionarily advantageous for the witch-hazel to grow its branches in an extended, zig-zag like pattern in order to attain maximum sunlight exposure. The map depicts the range where American Witch-Hazel is found. Regions highlighted in green show its distribution.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The Hamamelis virginiana (American witch-hazel) is one species of the Hamamelis genus that originates from eastern North America, inhabiting the deciduous forests of Canada and the United States. Specifically, the native sites of the American witch-hazel range from Nova Scotia to Wisconsin, and northern Florida to eastern Texas. The first detailed account of the American witch-hazel was in 1588, when English colonist and ethnographer Thomas Hariot’s book “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” in which he described how the indigenous population used “witch hazel” to make bows and arrows. The genus name “Hamamelis” describes how fruit and flower appear on the tree at the same time, and the species name “virginiana” comes from Carolus Linnaeus who designated that the species habitat was Virginia. It is unconfirmed the exact origin of the common name “witch-hazel,” though it is hypothesized that “witch” refers to the old English word meaning “to bend” and “hazel” refers to its resemblance to true hazels of the Corylus genus. The name is also associated with the idea of a “witching rod,” which was used to locate sources of water.

The American witch-hazel is culturally significant for its history of being used by indigenous populations as food, medicine, and for sacred purposes. Its historical medicinal purposes included being used to treat colds, fevers, sore throats, tuberculosis, pain, poisoning, insect bites, hemorrhages, and other common ailments. The seeds of the witch-hazel were also used to divine if a person were sick or not. The indigenous populations used the witch-hazel by creating infusions or adding witch-hazel branches to their baths.

Watching the practices of the indigenous populations, the colonists began creating pharmaceuticals and extracts from witch-hazel, which has now led to the commonplace usage of witch-hazel in modern medicines and cosmetics. Currently, witch-hazel is included in skincare products like toners to treat oily complexion or inflammation. Medicinal uses of witch-hazel also include treating sunburns, soothing irritation from bug bites, and relieving discomfort from hemorrhoids. Using witch-hazel in food, over-the-counter medications, and cosmetics is FDA approved. Connecticut is actually known as the “witch hazel capital of the world” given that it falls within the native habitat of the witch-hazel and is the site of many distillation facilities. 

All the information above was provided by Engels and Brinckmann [6]. 

The American witch-hazel is unique from other species of the same genus, as its flowers start blooming in autumn, which is distinct from the Chinese species of witch-hazel (Hamamelis mollis) or the Chinese-Japanese species hybrid which both bloom in the winter to the spring [3]. Additionally, the American witch-hazel's reproductive time is rather long, as fruit from a prior year's flowers will develop at the same time as new flowers to be pollinated. Furthermore, after a seed is ejected from the seed capsule, it will need an additional year to germinate and will not flower for another six years [1].

1. Stritch, Larry. “American Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana L.).” U.S. Forest Service,….

2. “Common Witch-Hazel.” Brandeis University,…

3. Dickert, George M. “Witch Hazel.” Clemson University Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center, 27 Mar. 2012,

4. “Hamamelis virginiana.” Missouri Botanical Garden,…

5. Hamamelis virginiana Habitat.” University of Wisconsin La Crosse, 2007,

6. Engels, Gayle, and Brinckmann, Josef. “Witch Hazel.” HerbaGram: The Journal of the American Botanical Council, issue #116,…


“Hamamelis virginiana.” North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox,

Kautz, Andrea. “It’s my flower, and I’ll fruit when I want to.” Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 

“Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).” Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve,…

“Hamamelis virginiana.” Wikipedia,

Shrub Canopy Area: