The family of hamamelidaceae, under the order of saxifragales, contains 27 genera, including the genus Hamamelis. Experts divide this genus into five species, which people often refer to as witch hazel plants. Most gardeners refer to the plant Hamamelis mollis as the Chinese witch hazel, which, as the common name implies, is native to parts of China. This semi-hardy, deciduous plant may grow as an upright shrub that is approximately 10 to 15 feet (about three to four and a half m) tall, and sometimes it is a tree growing up to heights of 25 feet (about seven and a half m). Generally, it bears clusters of fragrant, yellow flowers that open in wintertime or early spring.
The Hamamelis mollis usually has ascending branches with large oval medium to dark green foliage that has a soft hairy or downy covering and a grayish underside. The three- to six-inch (about seven- to 15-cm) leaves generally turn yellow and/or orange in autumn. Most growers raise the plant for its distinctive winter blooms, which appear on bare branches in middle to late winter. The plant produces clusters of sweet-scented yellow flowers sporting spidery, crinkled petals that may be as long as one and one half inches (almost four cm).
The fruit of the Hamamelis mollis is unremarkable, being less than one inch (less than two and a half cm) in size and green to black in color. The plant reseeds itself in an uncommon way. In the summertime, when the fruit ripens, the nut-like capsule enclosing the seeds shoots them out at a steep upward angle, propelling them several feet from the plant. Sometimes people hear a soft popping sound, which some experts think is the source of the nickname of snapping hazelnut.
Hamamelis mollis generally survives better in a sheltered location, away from cold winds. Generally, temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) or below have a negative effect on the plant, often causing it to drop its flowers and not produce fruit. Some gardeners raise it as an espaliered specimen against a wall. It prefers partial sun or full sun and moist, acidic soil that is high in fertile organic matter.
Many of the witch hazel plants are useful medicinally, most notably as the astringent witch hazel. The Hamamelis mollis usually does not possess any medicinally value. People generally raise it solely for its ornamental appeal.
The common name Chinese witch hazel refers to other genera and species of the hamamelidaceae family, including Corylopsis sinensis and Loropetalum chinense. A buyer usually needs to research which of these he or she wants in the garden. A gardener often can choose a suitable specimen from several cultivars of the Hamamelis mollis.