Plant of the Week: American Witchhazel

Photo by Steven Severinghaus

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Hamamelis virginiana, the American witchhazel, is a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree in the Hamamelidaceae family. Its native range extends throughout the deciduous forests in eastern North America. American witchhazel typically grows to about 15 to 20 feet in height and almost as wide, but can grow larger in the southern portions of its range. It has slender, arching, alternate branches with smooth, brownish-gray bark forming a zigzag habit towards the tips. Oval shaped leaves grow three to six inches long and nearly as wide and have asymmetrically rounded bases and wavy margins. The petals and sepals form starbursts of small, bright-yellow ribbons that light up the otherwise brown and gray hues of the late autumn season.

The American witchhazel is an attractive plant all year, but really shines throughout the autumn season. While its leaves are still green, the fruits begin to mature at the same time as clusters of flowers begin to bloom along slender branches. As the leaves turn from green to brilliant yellow and brown, the fruit capsules of the American witchhazel dehisce (split along a natural line and discharge contents) and burst to expel the seeds up to 20 feet from the parent plant in a process called ballistic seed dispersal. An abundance of one-inch golden-yellow flowers persist late into the season. The American witchhazel’s fall flowering phenology is unique for blooming when most plants are going dormant for the season. It is thought that this reduces competition for pollinators by providing a food source for nectar-foraging insects such as flies, bees, and moths in colder weather when there are few remaining pollinators about.

The American witchhazel also provides important cover, nesting sites, and food for wildlife, including many species of mammals, birds and insects. Several Native American tribes used teas and extracts of the plant to treat inflammation and stop bleeding. Witchhazel extract, used as an astringent, has been commercially produced in the United States for over a century.

Catch these fall beauties in the recently opened third section of the park, the High Line at the Rail Yards!


American witchhazel can be found on the High Line at 30th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, as well as the 34th Street entry plaza.

Download our December bloom list.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects – become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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