Species Profile: Hamamelis vernalis; Ozark witch-hazel
Scientific Name: Hamamelis vernalis
Common Name(s): Ozark witch-hazel, Vernal witch-hazel, Winterbloom
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Ozark witch-hazel is in the Hamamelidaceae or witch-hazel family. They are large sized deciduous shrub which can grow between 10 to 12 feet tall. The bush has multiple branching stems that come from the base with non-peeling bark that is brown to gray, often with gray blotches. Along the stem, the leaves are alternately attached and form a spiral as they move up the stem. Ozark witch-hazel has simple leaves which are ovate to oblong with wavy-toothed margins and easily noticeable veins. The leaves’ base is wedge-shaped and uneven at the short petiole that attaches to the stem which stay attached during the winter. They are a winter blooming shrub species which ﬂowers from January into April. These fragrant ﬂowers grow from previous years’ stems and are clustered with several ﬂowers per stalk. The ﬂowers are half an inch wide and long and have symmetry along a central axis, also known as radial symmetry. Four ribbon-like petals that are usually orange and/or red come oﬀ the ﬂower. Since the ﬂower blooms in the winter, the petals roll up on cold days to prevent freeze damage. The ﬂowers become fruiting bodies from September to October. The fruit is a half inch hard woody capsule that is elliptical in shape. The seed is forcefully ejected from the capsule and can be propelled up to 30 feet from the original bush. Alternatively, Ozark witch-hazel will create plant shoots from its roots known as root suckers. When left to grow naturally it is an effective ground covering shrub.
Eastern witch-hazel, also called common or American witch-hazel (H. virginiana), can be easily misidentiﬁed as Ozark witch-hazel. Eastern witch-hazel has a much wider distribution range, being found in all the locations of Ozark witch-hazel; however, it is also found in states including and east of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It also ﬂowers earlier, from November to December. The ﬂowers are more yellow in color and have slightly larger petals. Additionally, the leaves are more dramatically uneven at the base with one side being straight and the other side being rounded or heart shaped. The leaves tend to fall oﬀ in the fall rather than staying attached.
Ozark witch-hazel has a limited distribution compared to the more common Eastern witch-hazel. Ozark witch-hazel can be found in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Ozark witch-hazel is best grown in moist, well drained, and acidic soil; however, once established Ozark witch-hazel is drought tolerant and can withstand low nutrient soils. It can live in full sun to part shade but will ﬂower best in full sun. It has a moderate growth rate adding 1 to 2 feet per year. Ozark witch-hazel can persist in disturbed streamside and streambed habitats with consistent ﬂooding. Speciﬁcally, it lives in gravel and rocky dry streambeds, bases of rocky slopes, and along riparian or streamside areas. It rarely naturally grows in forested areas. Ozark witch-hazel along stream sites helps maintain soil integrity and minimize erosion, partially because it is a suckering plant which sends up small sprouts from its roots or from damaged limbs. This makes it an effective bushy ground cover. Soil maintenance helps streamside animals gain access to water, including raccoons, water snakes, toads, and ﬁsh spiders. Some species of moths and aphids are specialized to feed on witch-hazels such as the spiny witch-hazel gall aphid, the witch-hazel cone gall aphid, and the witch-hazel dagger moth. Ozark witch-hazel along with Eastern witch-hazel are the common sources of witch-hazel extract which is used for various topical ointments, such as shaving lotion and ointments for bruises and irritated skin. When applied, it restricts blood ﬂow which prevents further swelling. Historically, forked switches of Ozark witch-hazel were a common tool known as a dowsing rod. These tools were used to ﬁnd water sources for wells by “witch wiggers” or “water witches.” Most scientists say this method of ﬁnding water sources is strictly pseudoscience but was commonly used in the past.
Here in Bella Vista, you may spot some Ozark witch-hazel by Little Sugar or in Tanyard Creek recreational area. Ozark witch-hazel is widely cultivated statewide and is a good addition to gardens because it adds color to winter landscapes and looks lovely next to freshly fallen snow. It grows best in rich, moist, and well-drained soil, and will ﬂower best in full sunlight. Root suckers should be trimmed if you want to avoid spread, otherwise it will spread and form a colony along the ground. Spring is the best time for pruning. You can prune Ozark witch-hazel to be irregular, rounded, or vase shaped which adds dimensions to your garden. Ozark witch-hazel is excellent choice to plant in erosion prone areas.