When I was a young girl, I used witch hazel on my face as an astringent.
Even then, when television commercials spouted all sorts of harsh chemicals for controlling overactive oil glands on a teenager's face, I preferred the more natural approach.
It might have been my mother who recommended the witch hazel. After all, she still brushed her teeth with baking soda, shaking a little into her palm from the orange box in the pantry and dipping her wet toothbrush in the powder to get it to stick in the bristles. I tried it too, but the taste threw me off and I caved to the minty freshness of from the tube.
Still, you couldn't be too careful with what you put on your face back then. Not much has changed, I might add. Today's popular products will bleach out the color in a face cloth, not to mention what it does to our tender, facial skin.
When I get a whiff of the scent of witch hazel, it takes me back and I can't help but think about those days when all I had to worry about was an unexpected break-out.
At that time, I didn't know that witch hazel was a native woodland shrub. It has since been cultivated into several varieties for the home garden, and last week I purchased one that I think will make a great addition to the garden, especially in late winter.
Before I tell you about the variety I chose, whose ancestors came from Asia, I'd like to mention witch hazel as a native plant to this country.
American witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, has quite a history in modern folklore. When you see old movies of pioneers using a forked branch from a tree to find water, it is the American witch hazel branch they are using. Called "divining rods," these branches were believed to have the power to find water far beneath the earth.
As an herb, the leaves and bark were used as remedies for several ailments, particularly bruises, sores and skin rashes. Highly aromatic, the oils of witch hazel contain tannins, although the commercial products found in today's drug stores are high distilled until there are no tannins left.
The shrub I bought is a little different than the American wild version. My plant, Hamamelis intermedia 'Diane' is a tamer version of the old fashioned plant of pioneer days.
It is still as fragrant as the original, but the flowers are bright red rather than the more common yellow or orange. The leaves are broad, oval and have scalloped edges, making it an interesting specimen. When it flowers, they will look like little bursts of confetti from a Christmas cracker or one of those curly ribbons on a package.
I'm looking forward to adding it to my garden also because it is a three season plant, one of the first to bloom in late winter and one of the most colorful in fall before the bronze leaves drop off for winter. Even now, as I'm preparing to plant it from its container into the garden, the leaves are emerald green edged with bronze and the plant is filled with seed pods that were once those brilliant flowers. I have high hopes for its showy quality in my garden next year.
According to the tag, my plant prefers full sun to light shade and will grow about 20 feet tall with a spread of about 10 feet. It is a woodland plant, preferring good drainage but plenty of moisture, and I have the perfect spot for it at the back of the landscape along the fence.
Diane isn't the only witch hazel cultivar to choose from. Ask your favorite nursery or garden center to recommend other varieties, such as 'Autumn Embers,' or 'Sandra,' both cultivars with colorful fall foliage.
Some plants come balled and burlapped, but mine is in a five-gallon container. Since witch hazel is difficult to grow from seed or cuttings, it's best to buy them as already established plants.
To plant it, we will be digging a large hole, wide enough to accommodate all of the roots without bending or folding them to fit and deep enough to plant it at the same soil line it is in the container.
We'll amend the soil with lots of compost and will water it deeply and regularly the first year or two, making sure the roots don't dry out. Once it is established in the garden, it won't need watered as often.