Our vernal witch hazel has small blooms, but the shrub is covered in them, beginning in late February or early March. They last about a month and smell heavenly.

Each week, the subject I choose to write about is the most difficult part of authoring this column. Sometimes the topic falls in my lap due to an experience I had in the week prior, and other times, I can’t think of a single interesting thing to save my life.

This week, the witch hazel gets its turn in the spotlight, because for a month now, it’s been trying to grab my attention any time I get remotely close to it. It has a powerful attraction with a scent that keeps me coming back for more. I linger and drink in its tropical spring fragrance while my husband declares he “could smell that all day long.”

My only knowledge of witch hazel prior to becoming a gardener was its use as a skin tonic. First, as a teenager with acne, and then again when I gave birth to our first child. (Some moms will know what I mean!) I was aware that it was a plant-based product, but that’s about it.

And then I attended a flower show and I saw some beautiful shrubs on display that were covered in quirky yellow flowers. Each bloom’s skinny petals looked like tiny strips of crepe paper all over its branches. What I saw was Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’. Its appearance drew me in and the fragrance kept me there after I read the tag on it to learn more.

That first one was a hybrid, a cross between a Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and a Chinese one (H. mollis), but I soon learned that we have a native species here in Ohio. Common witch hazel (H. virginiana) can be found sporting its blooms in late fall and into early winter. Another species, vernal witch hazel (H. vernalis), is native to the Ozarks, but performs well here, and blooms in late winter into early spring.

I acquired our witch hazel years ago at Arbor Farms in Ft. Wayne, only because I got lucky and found it there, for the very reasonable price of $30 for a three-foot, full shrub. It was not the species native to Ohio, but rather the vernal witch hazel, but I was assured that it would produce lusciously fragrant flowers in late winter.

So if a plant like this flowers in winter, what about pollination? Aren’t all the pollinators in a kind of dormancy when it’s so cold for days on end? Well, yes and no. Witch hazels are pollinated by several flies, bees, wasps and moths that come out on sunny warmer (40°+) days of colder weather.

Whichever witch hazel you choose, it makes a great hedge or specimen plant, owing to its dense branching, the fragrant blooms and the colorful fall foliage display. It tolerates clay soil, as long as it’s well drained, although ours is in one of the wetter areas of the garden and seems not to mind.

The origin of its common name isn’t exactly known, but one theory is that water witchers have used its branches as divining rods (a.k.a. dowsing rods) to locate sources of underground water for tapping into. They also use willow, elm, and some fruiting tree branches for this purpose.

Witch hazel has been used for various skin conditions as a healing and soothing medicament for hundreds of years. It is one of the only medicinal plants that has been approved by the FDA as a non-prescription drug ingredient. Various ingredients are distilled from its wood, and bottled witch hazel can be found in just about any drugstore.

Read more about Kylee’s garden and nature by following her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kyleebaumle. Contact her at PauldingProgressGardener@gmail.com.