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Cori Brown: More than just a bewitching plant

The best thing about winter is what comes next, and that would be spring! We are less than seven weeks away from the first day of spring but who’s counting (me, me, me, me, me!)? Our winter season temperatures have been topsy-turvy (60-plus degree days in January can be pretty inspiring), which makes some of the cold snaps we are experiencing more difficult to tolerate. Even the plants are confused. Some of my perennials are already popping up through the soil, including many daffodils (I’m begging the flower gods not to snuff them out with multiple days of frost).

There is one plant though that is a steady barometer of spring for me — witch hazel.

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For the uninitiated, this sounds like a weird name for a plant. What does it have to do with witches and who is hazel?

The word witch in witch hazel apparently derives from the old English word wych (there are various spellings of the word) meaning bendable. This could relate to the plant’s odd shaped branches that bend this way and that or to the alleged ability of the branches (usually y-shaped ones) to detect water beneath the ground, which is often referred to as dousing.

As for the hazel part of the name, this seems to be a bit vaguer in its origins. There is some thought that the plant resembles a hazel nut tree (a completely different plant altogether). Based on my research, the “hazel” part of the name remains shrouded in a bit of mystery, adding even more mystique to this unusual plant.

There also happens to be the time of year when it blooms. While most flowering plants blossom in the spring and summer, witch hazel blooms mostly in the fall and winter. What a bonus when everything else is dormant and brown. Both cultivated varieties of witch hazel I have in my yard bloom in late winter/early spring.

This witch hazel may be covered by winter’s snow but it is ready for spring with its beautiful yellow flowers.
This witch hazel may be covered by winter’s snow but it is ready for spring with its beautiful yellow flowers.(Cori Brown Photo)

In fact, one is just a bit ahead of schedule (the first day of spring isn’t until March 19) with red blooms already covering the shrub. Last year’s flowers did not appear until March 4.

Its medicinal and dousing qualities go way back in our country’s history. Native Americans used it the treat sore muscles, colds and skin ulcers. They steeped it in tea to treat diarrhea. They shared its dousing qualities with colonial English settlers and the practice continues to this day. A 2012 article in The Atlantic magazine mentions a New Englander who claims he located 20 to 30 wells using witch hazel divining or dousing branches or rods as they are also known.

Walk into any drug store and you will find witch hazel on the shelves. Though there is scarce large-scale scientific study on its medicinal effectiveness, nowadays it is supposedly used to treat a multitude of skin conditions including insect bites, acne, sunburn and poison ivy. It is still used for muscle aches, hemorrhoids and varicose veins.

It is also popular in many upscale cosmetics, eye washes and after shave lotions. If witch hazel can treat all of these conditions, it is quite the miracle plant!

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In researching the plant’s medicinal and herbal qualities (the native Hamamelis virginiana contains tannins and flavonoids associated with astringency), there seems to be some question as to how much of the plant’s beneficial properties actually get into commercially sold products. Some are of the opinion that the distilled liquid bottles of witch hazel water contain very little, if any, of the plant’s bark and leaf extracts.

Yet, the bottles are still a staple found in many medicine cabinets.

Personally, I don’t have any in the house but I am curious to know if it really works for all the aforementioned conditions. Since I get poison ivy every year, it might be a good idea to add some to my own medicine cabinet.

It is of some use for wildlife as well. As an understory plant growing from 15 to 25 feet tall (sometimes as high as 40 feet in its native habitat), it serves as excellent shelter for small mammals and birds. I often see birds in our witch hazels in the spring and summer not only for shelter but also for the fruits.

The fruits are an interesting story in and of themselves. The previous year’s fruits appear on the plant at the same time as the flowers (the genus name Hamamelis in Latin means “together with fruit”). The split fruit capsule has a small, shiny one fourth inch black seed in each half. When it matures, look out because it explodes and can fly as much as 30 feet into the air. How about that for some plant fireworks! No wonder it is also referred to as snapping hazel.

Slowly but surely early signs of the spring to come are revealing themselves to us. Witch hazel is one of these signs with its bewitching bright yellow, red or orange blooms, unusual branch structure and folklore steeped in our country’s culture.

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Bird note: if you want something fun to do Feb. 14-17, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count at birdcount.org.

This column is dedicated to my dear friend Donna Schell, who recently passed away unexpectedly and way too soon. She was a dedicated environmentalist her entire life. She devoted herself to making our planet a better place to live through her work with many Department of Defense agencies, and particularly with the US Army Corps of Engineers. She leaves behind a legacy of teaching hundreds of people to do the right thing by our fragile Earth and passing it on to future generations.

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