The witch hazel plant is a unique shrub due to the fact that the leaves, flowers and fruit all appear on the plant at the same time. The time of blooming is September to January.
The habitat is in the Eastern United States, Britain and Canada, with one species in Japan and one in China. Witch hazel prefers moist woodland with rich soil.
Witch hazel grows up to twelve feet in height, with gray bark and leaves which are approximately three to five inches long and two to three inches wide. The leaves are often spotted underneath and have hairy undersides.
The flowers are dark yellow, orange or red and are somewhat strap shaped in appearance and have both male and female parts on one flower. The black nuts that come next, still encased in their seedpods, waiting to ripen several months later. The ripened seedpods split violently in two, ejecting the seeds up to a distance up to ten meters.
This is the reason the witch hazel is also called the snapping hazel. One other name it is also known by is the Spotted Alder, in reference to spots appearing on the underside of the leaves.
The name comes from the Middle English word ‘wice’ meaning bendable. Twigs of witch hazel are often used by dowsers as are the twigs of hazel in areas of Europe. Witch hazel was one of the first New World plants brought back the Old World and grown as an ornamental. Witch hazel plants are often grown in pots until they are two years old and ready for transplant but they will not bear flowers or fruit until after they are six years old.
Native Americans used the witch hazel as medicinal infusions to induce vomiting and to calm it. The Pond Company used the extract for use in curing facial blemishes, skin problems, inflammations, reduction of pain and the relief of piles. The Menominee used the seeds in religious ceremonies. Many medical ointments and salves use witch hazel as an active ingredient. The witch hazel plants are a food source for squirrels, ruffled grouse and deer. Several of the southern and eastern states list them as native and in need of conservation.