When witch hazel flowers in late fall, its leaves are golden with the season’s splendor, or already fallen to join the rich tapestry of the eastern deciduous forest floor. Its yellow petals resemble crimped streamers, lending a wild look to the close aggregation of flowers (one might liken them to a late-night party of fringe-element spiders). Some callous individuals, lacking floral social skills, have been known to describe the blooms as scraggly.
Hamamelis virginiana, Hamamelidaceae, is a woodland shrub growing from Florida to Nova Scotia and west to Minnesota and Texas. Witch hazel prefers to grow near streams, rivers, and wet bottomlands in part shade to full sun, but it can be easily cultivated in regular garden soil. There are only four species in the genus Hamamelis, two being native to eastern North America and two native to eastern Asia. Hamamelis virginiana is the only species in the genus that flowers in the fall; the other species flower in winter or very early spring.
If you live in the east, now is a perfect time to observe these flowers. Flower lovers, get out your hand lens and get to bloomoogling! You may have to peak closely, but you should see the pistil (female part of the flower, which will develop into the woody capsule) in the center with its two recurved stigma tips, surrounded by four squat stamens (pollen-bearing male structures). Gently pry open the flower to observe four tiny spatula-like structures nestled in front of the petals – these are nectar-producing staminodes.
Staminodes are infertile stamens, which do not produce pollen, but serve to augment pollination through a variety of means. Some staminodes are showy and attract pollinators, much as petals; others have specialized hairs, which help to trap and distribute pollen. In the case of witch hazel, the function of the staminodes is to attract pollinators through producing nectar. Small flies and bees pollinate witch hazel; only one percent of flowers ever mature into fruit. Last year’s capsules can be seen side by side with the flowers. The capsules are explosive, ejecting their two shiny black seeds up to 30 feet.
One year I collected some of the closed capsules, yet untriggered, placed them in my seasonal treasures basket and promptly forgot about them. A couple of months later I repeatedly heard random sounds coming from the back of the house; every time I went to investigate, I couldn’t find anything amiss. For a while I thought we had a fresh crop of uppity mice, boldly running around in plain daylight. Sweeping up the ejected seeds one day, I finally put it all together – the late afternoon sun coming through the window had warmed the capsules enough to stimulate their rapid-fire opening.
Native Americans have long used the twigs and bark of witch hazel as a medicinal herb, both internally and topically, for a wide variety of ailments. The tea was taken to treat sore throat, diarrhea, colds, coughs, bruising and to prevent post-partum hemorrhage. The tannins in witch hazel help to lessen the inflammation of mucus membranes in sinus congestion from allergies, sinus infections and head colds. Topically, witch hazel is applied as a compress to heal varicose veins and hemorrhoids. The strong tea, applied as a wash, is a folk remedy for poison ivy. I harvest the twigs in early spring when the leaves are just emerging, and chop and dry them for tea. I also prepare a fresh tincture 1:2 80%. The witch hazel preparations sold in the drugstore are made from a steam distillation of the twigs, preserved with alcohol. It is much weaker than a standard tincture or tea.
Witch hazel’s name originates from its use as a divining rod; the forked twigs bend slightly when dousing for water. The Middle English word wiche means pliant or bendable. Dousing was, and continues to be, a very important ancient craft in determining the best location to dig a well. The hazel in its name originates from the leaves’ close resemblance to the unrelated hazelnut (Corylus spp., Betulaceae).
The leaves of witch hazel often bear galls in a shape of a cone, caused by the aptly named witch hazel cone gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). I think the galls resemble the stereotypical witch’s hat (see the image below). Galls are formed from plant tissue, in response to chemicals produced by insects, which mimic various plant growth hormones. Inside the gall, the insect(s) happily munch on the plant tissue, while protected from predators. They are formed from various plant tissues depending on the host and the insect involved.
The witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) contains some notable ornamentals, often planted for their winter or early spring blooms. Pictured below is the flower of witchalder (Fothergilla sp.), a small shrub native to the southeastern United States.