The flower that blooms in the winter

The witchhazel is a species of flower that blooms in cold temperatures and lives around campus, and in abundance at the Morris Arboretum. The Arboretum’s Anthony Aiello talks the ins and outs of the strange species.

Rubin red variety of witchhazels
The Hamamelis × intermedia variety of witchhazels, also known as Rubin. (Photo courtesy: Morris Arboretum)

While magnolias and roses hold out for the warmth of the spring sun, witchhazels are a bit more impatient—maybe even defiant. They bloom in the thick of winter.

Native to parts of Asia and North America, the flower is an anomaly in that it blooms in cold weather, seemingly defying conventional wisdom of gardening. The Morris Arboretum maintains an immense collection of these winter wonders on display in their full bloom; they can be viewed as part of the the garden’s wellness walks on weekends, or during a duo of witchhazel events held on Saturday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 23, when an expert will be available to talk more about the flower. (Admission to the Arboretum is free for PennCard holders.)

To learn more about the unusual winter flower, Penn Today chatted with Anthony Aiello, director of horticulture and curator at the Morris Arboretum.


What is a witchhazel?

A witchhazel is a group of plants that are large shrubs. They occur in North America and in Asia, and there are six or seven species. Their main horticultural [quality] is they flower at times of the year when few other things are flowering. Basically, they start flowering in the fall, late October and November, and depending on which species or variety you have, they flower in a sequence through the winter, into early spring.

And they’re native to China and Japan?

They’re native to North America, the United States and Mexico, and China and Japan.

And the hook with them is they’re winter bloomers?

They’re winter bloomers and, from a gardening point of view, they’re very interesting because there’s very little else happening when they’re flowering. And they’re fragrant, too, with a sweet but spicy fragrance. You get them at a time of year when most of us are holed up inside. On a bright winter day, you can enjoy them. You can also bring branches into the house, and they’re nice to bring inside in the winter to brighten up the house. And the fragrance is good to have around the house as well.

Gold witchhazel flowers and gazebo
The Princeton Gold variety of the witchhazel at Morris Arboretum. (Photo courtesy: Morris Arboretum)


These also grow in Mexico though? I don’t think of that as a winter-blooming mecca.

It’s a species or subspecies, depending on how you look at it—a relative of the species found throughout the eastern United States. The common witchhazel has a wide native range and is native in Philadelphia. If you walk along the Wissahickon Trail, you’ll see common witchhazels in flower in the fall. The one in Mexico is actually even a little more accelerated, since it flowers in late summer, early fall. It’s interesting, from a botanical view, because it’s a plant widespread in eastern North America, with a disjunct population located in Central Mexico.

One thing I want to say is that the most highly planted ones are those that flower from late winter into early spring; some start around Christmas, early in the new year, and really get going late January through February into March. Most of those are the Asian species or hybrids of the Asian species. The most highly sought after, the ornamental ones, are the winter-blooming ones. 

One of the species native to this part of the world—the common witchhazels—is the one used in witchhazel oil, often used in cosmetics, soaps, or quasi-medicinal uses. You can use it as an after shave or astringent. That’s all extracted from the North American species. It’s also the main ingredient in hemorrhoid medications. You know those pads you can use? The main ingredient is witchhazel oil. It’s a really useful and pleasant plant extract that’s still regularly used.

And the Arboretum has how many varieties?

We have a big collection here. It’s a collection we’ve had interest in going back for at least 100 years, and there’s always an interest in this collection. I’d say in the last 15 years, we’ve added a lot of plants to this collection, so now we have over 80 types of witchhazels. And you know, our visitation is pretty slow in winter time, but we have a family event in February to get people out to the garden and moving in the winter time to come look at these plants. It’s not a huge event, but a nice thing for people to get out when we’re all feeling cabin fever in the wintertime. It’s a collection we’ve focused on and tried to build. It’s one of my big interests and one of our more significant groups of plants here.

Where in the Arboretum are they?

They’re pretty scattered around. If you go to our website, there is a link to a map that people can get. The ones on that map are relatively easy to find and on the main path, but then there are others dispersed all throughout the Arboretum. There are some on campus—not a big number, but if you go to the campus arboretum page, you can find where they are on campus.

Red witchhazel with snow
Snow rests atop a witchhazel that lives on campus, on the brink of blooming in February weather.



The flowers look wiry and shriveled. What causes that effect?

They have these very reduced petals. If you think of a rose, on the petals, that’s the main part of what you see in a rose flower. The witchhazel has those thin, strap-like petals, and the interesting thing about them is they, depending on how cold or warm it is, unfurl and re-furl. If you go out and look at them on a cold day, they’ll be tight and furled up. They’ll open and close depending on the weather. That’s an adaptation to the time of year when they flower and they’re able to withstand really cold temperatures and tolerate that. They’re pretty fascinating. They’re in flower at a time of year when it’s really cold. There are very few trees or shrubs that flower this time of year. Even native ones are doing that. From a botanical point of view, they’re interesting—and from a horticultural gardener point of view as well.

Are they hard to come by?

A little bit hard to come by, but not super hard. There are some good mail-order companies that sell them; some better garden centers sell them. If there’s a garden center in your area, you’ll probably find them, maybe not at a big box store, but specialty garden centers around Philadelphia you can find them. They’ve become a little more popular in recent years, but you might just have to do a little searching for them.

I read about the seeds in the flower. They eject and explode?

The seeds inside of the fruit, it’s a capsule—a little hard fruit. And when they are ready to disperse, they open up really fast and the seeds are ejected from them. What that means is, if we ever collect seeds, we collect fruits, we put them in paper bags so that when they pop open they don’t go flying around the room. It’s really fun because they do shoot out of there like popcorn.

And what’s the story behind the name?

There are a couple interpretations of the name. One is that the leaves are reminiscent of hazelnut leaves, and it’s also thought that the branches were used for divining or finding water—that is, ‘witching’ for water. That’s one of the stories I’ve heard about the name. There are a few different stories, but that’s one of the ones I think has a little more credence.