The plant is a highly underrated native species as it is attractive in late fall and early winter. The fragrant flowers are unique and look like a blonde version of Animal from the Muppets. The leaves are a rich and crisp green. It can be planted in light shade and prefers the northern side of structures. The tree can be multi-trunked with contorted and irregular trunks that adds to the winter interest of this tree.
The flower is interesting as, when temperatures dip, the petals twist tighter to protect itself; when the temperatures are warmer, the petals relax more to allow available pollinators access. In spring, it produces fruit that ripens in the summer time, and then in fall, when ready, the seed pod literally explodes, shooting the seed over 20 feet away. The seed takes two years to germinate. These white seeds are edible with a taste like pistachios. This plant is unusual as it can have leaves, flowers, and fruit on the limb all at the same time.
Colonists saw the witch hazel and noted its similarity to trees at home, such as the hazel tree (species Corylus) whose flexible branches were used in wattle fencing and baskets. In 1588 Thomas Hariot recorded that Indians were using “witch-hazel” to make bows. Ben Franklin used a witch-hazel as a form of payment to the physician and Quaker Botanist Dr. John Fothergill who treated his leg.
The most famous use of the witch hazel is that of locating water with the forked limbs being used as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settles observed Native Americans using American witch-hazel to find underground sources of water.
The blooms attract various native bees and honey bees. The tree is a host plant for 69 species of butterflies and moths in the greater Jefferson County area including the Large Lace Border and Whitemarked Tussock Moth. Vireos, finches, chickadees, warblers, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Towhees are among the 17 genera of birds who are found utilizing witch-hazel.