Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), is a small tree or shrub, which is approximately 1-5 meters in height. It ranges, impressively, from Florida to as far north as Nova Scotia, about 2,000 miles! Witch Hazel grows and thrives in a number of different climates and environments. In more temperate regions it is found in moist, shady places like ravines, craggy slopes, and as part of the understory in forests. In the north it is found in slightly drier, warmer areas like slopes and hilltops. There are several noticeable differences between the plants found in colder climates versus warmer climates. In colder areas Witch Hazel has vibrant yellow flowers, large leaves and is shorter, denser and more shrub like, while in warmer areas they have pale flowers, small leaves and the trees reach greater heights.
Witch Hazel has a number of other unique properties. Unlike most plants it flowers in the late fall and early winter, and its flowers persist even after its own leaves, and the first snows have fallen. The bright yellow flowers are easily seen, especially in a landscape dominated by the recently fallen leaves of other trees and plants. Their bright colors are meant to attract pollinators, and blooming during this time of the year means there is little competition. Witch hazel also disperses its seeds during the fall season. The seeds are housed in tough, woody pods which burst open with a cracking sound to expel their contents up to several yards away.
Witch Hazel has been used as a medicinal remedy by Native Americans for hundreds of years, they brewed a tea with its leaves to treat colds, and used the bark to soothe skin ailments. In modern times, Witch Hazel is one of the very few botanical remedies approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, and the full extent of its medicinal properties is still under investigation. The type of Witch Hazel commonly seen in stores is a solution extracted from the bark of the tree. This liquid can be used as an antiseptic, and as a topical solution to treat certain skin conditions.
In addition to the known medicinal uses of Witch Hazel, it also has a long history of mystical uses. The name Witch Hazel is likely derived from the word wicke, which is an early Anglo-Saxon word for bend. Early European settlers believed that the forked or bent branches of the plant could be used to locate underground water sources. Settlers would select a branch growing in a north/south direction, and comb the landscape, holding the forked end in their hands. Any tug or bend in the branch would indicate water, and thus a good place to dig a well.
Be sure to look and listen for the cracking seed pods of Witch Hazel during your fall walks, or stop by our butterfly garden to get a closer look at these amazing native plants!
by Kimberly Stever