Thinking of a walk in the November woods? A medley of sights, sounds and smells comes to mind: The fragrance of fallen brown oak leaves, ghostly gray hills in a drizzling rain, the scrabbling sound of a squirrel running up a tree, the patter of falling hickory nuts, or the tangy taste of a wild apple. But if youve never come across a witch hazel tree full of yellow blossoms, youve missed a November treat.
By Doug Pifer
Witch hazel is a small tree found in rich woods, often along stream banks or rocky hillsides. Like the dogwood, its an understory tree, preferring to grow in the shade of taller trees rather than in sunny spots. Throughout the summer its easily ignored, with rounded, coarsely lobed, irregular shaped leaves on zigzaggy twigs. Its the sort of tree I would naturally brush aside while looking for something else.
About the time most trees drop their seeds and start to shed their leaves, witch hazel comes into its own. By the time most of its own leaves have turned yellow and brown or fallen off, witch-hazel breaks into flower. Tiny four-sided buds break open, and almost overnight clumps of stringy petals pop out, in clusters of four, like bursts of yellow fireworks on the bare twigs. Up close the strap-like petals look like twisted strips of yellow crepe paper at a party. Against the gray background of the November woods, the modest witch hazel becomes spectacular.
This month witch hazel has another surprise. Further back from the flowers, clusters of brown, nut-like capsules about the size of jellybeans. Warmed by the dry, Indian-summer sun, they suddenly split in two. forcefully propelling their two shiny black seeds for a distance of up to 20 feet.
Many years ago while a student at Penn State I stopped for lunch during a hike along a wooded ridge in Centre County, Pa. Dozing for a moment on the warm October afternoon, I was startled awake by what I thought was stray shot from a grouse hunters gun. Looking around I discovered a witch hazel tree nearby. Id been shot by its exploding seed capsules. Witch hazels late flowering and its ability to shoot its seeds explosively out of their capsules have resulted in the alternate names, winter bloom and snapping hazel.
Although the blooms and seeds show up around Halloween, its name isnt about witches or witchcraft. The witch in witch-hazel is believed to come from writh, an Old English word for turning or twisting, and not from wicca meaning witch or wizard. The word goes back to the ancient art of divining or witching, which is almost unknown today.
In the old days in Britain and in Europe, if landowners wanted to know just where to drill for water or minerals, they often consulted a respectable practitioner of this almost occult art. A diviner would walk along holding a Y-shaped witch-hazel stick by its forked ends, with the tip parallel to the ground. The tip of the rod was supposed to witch or twist earthward at the point it detected whatever the diviner was seeking underground. In the 1800s in America, witching for water was well known to prospectors and pioneers in the arid western states, but these tough minded folks were suspicious by nature and the practice had taken on a bad reputation by then. In recent times its been dismissed as folklore or superstition. Nowadays the closest thing youll see to divining is the metal detector.
An ancient herbal tonic, witch hazel remains a popular household remedy. The witch-hazel you buy at the drug store is still the real thing and not a synthetic chemical compound: a clear extract of witch-hazel bark, twigs and leaves mixed with alcohol and distilled water. Medicinally its an astringent, which means it draws soft tissues together or puckers. Native Americans recognized this property and used witch-hazel externally for rheumatism and fever and internally for hemorrhoids and menstrual cramps.
Witch hazel can be applied directly to the skin at room temperature to relieve aching muscles, heated on a steamed towel to sooth bruises and strains, or on a cold compress to relieve symptoms of fever. Witch hazel extract is also an important ingredient in certain after-shave lotions.
Witch hazel is also cultivated as a decorative shrub that grows 5-15 feet high. Varieties with reddish or orange blossoms, and even one that blooms in spring, are available. .
Doug Pifer is an artist and writer with Rainbird Studios in White Post.