You can always count on native plants to alert you when spring is within reach. Each plant has its own special show to ring in the changing seasons. Some plants send green shoots to peek outside, others burst into leaf, and some dive straight into bloom. Meanwhile, some plants, like witchhazel, throw a full-on party—complete with “fireworks” and mouth-watering aromas. Bring the party inside with you this year by forcing witchhazel branches to bloom indoors!
Which Witch is Which?
Before we go any further, let’s define exactly which witchhazel plant this article is about. As you may know, witchhazels are in fact a genus of flowering shrubs, which means there are several plants within the witchhazel family, known as Hamamelidaceae. The two types of witchhazel native to the United States are Ozark witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis), and American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
While American witchhazel’s fringe-like flowers are a treat in the fall, the Ozark witchhazel blooms at the very cusp of spring at the beginning of March. The plant’s charming blooms, which look like tassels or mini-fireworks that line the sturdy branches, emit a strong and intoxicating honey-like fragrance that can fill the room. You can enjoy the famous aroma of this unique native shrub at home by collecting a few branches in late February, just before the buds begin to break.
A Brief History of this Magical, Medicinal Plant
If you weren’t already familiar with witchhazels in your landscape, you’ve likely come across their flowers as an ingredient in skincare, first aid, and beauty products over the years. Witchhazel has natural astringent properties, which Native Americans have used for centuries as a medicine for sores, ulcers, dysentery, coughs, and colds. Branches of witchhazel were used in sweat lodge rituals to soothe tired muscles. The nuts, which have a pleasant pistachio-like flavor, were also a favorite treat for tribes in the South.
When American colonists arrived, they noticed the witchhazel flower was useful for treating insect bites and stings. Soon, the medicinal properties of the plant made their mark in pharmacology. Today, witchhazel is still used to treat medical conditions like varicose veins and digestive issues, and is a popular ingredient in toiletries like deodorant and facial toner.
Given its common name, it’s a popular misconception that witchhazel’s history intersects with witchcraft. While it stands to reason that this powerful plant might have been included in a few “potions” in years past, the plant has no strong connections to the occult. The “witch” in witchhazel is a variation on the Old English word ‘wice’, meaning ‘bendable’.
The Enchanting Features of Witchhazel
Despite having no connection to the lore of witches or wizards, witchhazel is pretty magical! Beyond its impressive list of properties, witchhazel stirs the senses with its intriguing flowers, attractive branches, and gorgeous scent.
Our favorite way to show off witchhazel indoors is in bundles of branches, cut to approximately the same length and displayed in a tall glass vase. The shrubs bloom on bare wood, peppering the graceful branches with explosions of glowing orange-bronze color. The warm-toned blooms and bare skyward-reaching branches are soothingly evocative of the early spring landscape. Meanwhile, the unmistakable aroma of blooming witchhazel will lift your spirits, reminding you of the parade of pollinators soon to come.
How to Force Witchhazel Indoors
Most of the effort of forcing witchhazel to bloom outdoors takes place while you’re collecting the branches! Choose long, sculpturally-beautiful branches to bring indoors and prune them off with sharp, clean shears. Bring the bundle, or bundles, indoors to place in a heavy vase half-filled with distilled water.
Place the vase in an airy location with some indirect sunlight from a bright window. The light and warmth in your home will signal spring to the branches, and as the flowers emerge, your home will gradually smell sweeter and sweeter!
By the time the scent has subsided, the natural world will be buzzing with the next wave of early spring blooms. Break up and discard your spent witchhazel branches in the compost heap, and take a good look around. You won’t need to look far before finding something fresh and fragrant to fill your vases!