Witch Hazel

Winter can often feel like a less exciting time of year in the garden after the bright, showy displays of summer fade and the fiery foliage of autumn carries us into the colder months. 

Many a garden loses its identity in winter, seen often as a season for preparation and carrying out essential maintenance for the coming season, and less about creating a continuous, transitional display throughout the year.

But why should we settle for quiet borders and empty spaces? The winter garden should be celebrated. It is the perfect time to admire the structural forms of evergreens, the vibrant and colourful stems of shrubs, and the brilliant bronze and copper tones of grasses, which are all enhanced by the crispness of a good frost. 

Flowering Perennials and Shrubs

Some of my favourite winter gardens not only provide an architectural display of height, shape, and colour but introduce winter hardy, flowering perennials and shrubs that help to bring the garden back to life. 

Hellebores are fully hardy and thrive particularly well in the wet, cold conditions of Scotland. They will flower prolifically from late autumn through winter in a partially shaded, sheltered spot. Combine with Cyclamen coum and set against the evergreen foliage of Euonymus japonicus, or the spindly stems of Euonymus alatus, to provide a spectacular display. Grasses and sedges have also become increasingly popular in recent years with Carex muskingumensis and Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ being two favourites.


My top winter-hardy shrub in Scotland, however, has to be witch hazel. A low maintenance, slow-growing specimen plant with spectacular autumn colour followed by fragrant flowers in rich shades of red, orange, and yellow in winter. Hamamelis can be the perfect addition to any garden that needs an injection of colour and scent. There is, though, far more to this plant than its ornamental value. 

Its crooked branches and spidery flowers are reminiscent of its use by witches who used to cut the branches and use them as divining rods in search of water and gold. The spider-like flowers are highly unusual and associated with the dark side of herbalism, they have an intoxicating, spicy scent that is irresistible to the passerby. The flowers can be harvested and gently infused in a bowl of filtered water using a moon infusion to enhance the heady scent at home. 

Hanging witch hazel branches in the home is said to protect one from the influences of evil and dark divination. It is noted for its protective associations and ability to bring emotional balance when one or more of your emotions may be stronger than the rest. The bright flowers banish darkness and malevolent thoughts. If there is tension or temper in your life, carrying a piece of the plant on you is said to ‘cool the passions’.

Skin Treatment

The common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, has been used by native North Americans for the treatment of skin complaints, muscle aches, respiratory, and digestive problems for centuries. 

The important astringent medicinal properties of the plant and its uses were learned by the European colonial settlers from the indigenous population and consequently used to treat a wider array of internal and external ailments. 

Today you can find witch hazel toner in most pharmacies and drug stores. Its astringency helps to tighten the pores and even out scarring. It is also an excellent make-up remover. 

You can make a batch of witch hazel water at home with this easy recipe: 

  • Measure 50g of flowering stems or twigs. 
  • Carefully remove the flowers and set aside, then cut the stem into small pieces and place in a large saucepan. 
  • Pour over 300ml of filtered water and bring to the boil, cover the pan, and reduce to a simmer for 1 hour. 
  • Remove from the heat and add the flowers and 50ml of vodka to extend the shelf life. 
  • Leave to steep for at least 4-6 hours but preferably overnight. 
  • Finally, strain the mixture through a muslin cloth and discard the plant parts. Store the water in brown glass pipette or spray bottles. 
  • If kept in a cool, dark spot, the mixture will keep for 6 months. 

This mixture of the stem and flowers can be applied to the skin as a toner or directly to small cuts and grazes once the skin has begun healing. The above recipe is a strong decoction for external application only. 

For a quick infusion that can be consumed internally, add 50g of the stems to a saucepan and add 600-700ml of boiling water. Let the tea brew for 10 minutes before straining and drinking. This is said to settle bowel problems and cleanse your digestive system. To help treat a sore throat, add a teaspoon of honey. Consume 1-3 cups per day.*

Hamamelis Choices

There are five species within the genus native to North America, China, and Japan and many cultivars have enhanced autumn colour, flowering, and scent. 

Some of my favourite cultivars are Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’ with deep red foliage in autumn and burnt orange-yellow flowers in mid-winter; Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ with clusters of highly fragrant, golden-yellow flowers in mid-late winter; and Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ with its spectacular, fiery orange-red flowers that last throughout winter in a sheltered spot. Witch hazels tend to be hardy down to -10 or -15C and prefer a partially shaded spot, sheltered from strong, cold winds. 

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’
Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Underplanting with snowdrops and winter aconites at the base of witch hazel is an easy way to enhance a winter display. Galanthus elwesii (Hiemalis Group) is guaranteed to flower before Christmas, the cultivars Galanthus elwesii ‘Barnes’ and Galanthus elwesii ‘Rainbow Farm Early’ are particularly impressive. Keep it simple by growing the native winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, or use the creamy-yellow cultivar Eranthis hyemalis ‘Schwevelglanz’. 

There certainly is no lack of choice when it comes to choosing plants for a winter garden. With good planning and design you can easily create year round impact and help banish those winter garden blues.

*Please always consult your doctor or a qualified herbalist before consuming herbal recipes or products.

Scott Galloway is a Glasgow based horticulturist and plantsman. Having worked in horticulture for five years, he specialises in kitchen garden production and herbs. He is particularly interested in the cross-cultural relationships people have with plants and how this defines their uses. 

Working with the National Trust for Scotland, he created a Scottish naturalised herb garden at Greenbank Garden, and is currently writing about plants for the RHS in his role as Plant Profile Writer. He is also building a National Collection of Bergenia in conjunction with Plant Heritage and hopes to be an authoritative voice on the genus.

You can keep up with Scott on his personal Instagram page and follow his new page dedicated to bergenias right here.

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