The Weird Ways of Witch Hazel

Nature seems to be filled with outliers and exceptions in almost every class of plants or animals. There are fish that fly, spiders that live in underwater bubbles, plants that eat insects.  But a few weeks before and after Halloween, we can find a local outlier of our own – the witch hazel.

One unusual characteristic of the witch hazel is that its flowers appear between late September and early December after all of its leaves (along with the leaves of almost every other tree) have fallen to the ground. This makes it the last woody plant to bloom in the woodlands of the eastern United States. The flowers grow close to the branch and have four slender, ribbonlike petals that are cream to yellowish in color and about three-quarters of an inch long.

If you look for the yellowish flowers of the witch hazel, you can’t miss them. They stand out in marked contrast to the grays and browns of the autumn woods, and some theorized that the reason for their unique time of flowering is that there is less competition for the attention of the few pollinating insects still active during this season. No one identified a major pollinator until, the naturalist, Bernd Heinrich, found thatowlet moths become active on cold nights by shivering to heat their bodies to 86° F. – a temperature warm enough to activate their flight muscles, He also found that these nocturnal moths, which primarily feed on tree sap, are the major pollinators of the witch hazel.

Another unique property of the witch hazel is that the flowers appear at the same time the woody pods produced by last year’s flowers are ripening and dispersing their seeds. The pods build up enough force to open with a snap and eject the two small, black seeds up to 30 feet away. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau mentions how he once “Heard in the night a snapping sound, and the fall of some small body on the floor from time to time.” In the morning he found that the sounds were produced by the witch-hazel pods on his desk that sprang open and cast their seeds across the room.

Another unique attribute of the witch hazel is that it is one of the very few herbal remedies approved by the FDA. Native Americans have used concoctions made from the leaves and twigs of the witch hazel as an astringent and to decrease inflammation since before their first contact with Europeans, and the newcomers were quick to adopt it for the same uses. Over time it has been used in salves for treating insect bites, burns, poison ivy rashes, acne, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, and a host of other inflammation injuries  In fact, two companies, Dickinson’s and Thayer’s, have been making witch-hazel skin care products for over a century, and they can still be found for sale at a majority of American pharmacies.

No article about witch Hazel would be complete without mention of its use in the form of dowsing we know as water witching. It has long been said that if a person cuts a Y-shaped witch hazel branch and holds one end in each hand that the remaining end will pull down when it passes over underground water. The debate about whether or not this works has gone on for something just a little short of forever. But, if you can find a witch hazel bush, it is easy enough to try out for yourself. Just take your water witch out into your yard and see if you can find the water pipe that goes into your house.

Another mystery of the witch-hazel is how it got its name. Some say the "witch" part of the name is derived from “wych,” an Old English word referring to the plant's bendable branches (also the root for the word "wicker”) and the “hazel “part of the name came from the fact that the leaves of the plant resemble those of the hazelnut (Corylus sp.). Another, (somewhat fantastical, yet more enchanting) reason says that, in earlier, more superstitious times, people walking in the woods would suddenly be startled by the snap of an exploding witch hazel seed pod and the sound of the seeds landing on the dry leaves that covered the ground. When they turned to see what made the sound, there was nothing there. It was kind of scary, and (so the story goes) because of this they started calling the plants witch hazels. 

Since many of our holidays already have plants that symbolize them, such as roses for Valentine’s Day, lilies for Easter, clover for St. Patrick’s Day and poinsettias for Christmas, I think the autumn bloomtime, the strange ways, and the spooky name of the witch hazel make it the perfect candidate for another of our great American holidays. The one devoted to witches, weirdlings, and wild things – The one we call Halloween

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published