Common Name: Witch Hazel, Snapping hazelnut, Winterbloom, Striped alder, Water witch – Witch in this context is derived from the Old English word wych meaning ‘to yield or to give way’ (the fabulous witch is from the Old English wicca, meaning ‘sorcerer’). The leaves are similar in appearance to those of the European hazel tree (Corylus avellana). The mnemonic common name witch hazel was given to the tree by the English colonists because it looked like a hazel tree and it had pliable branches.
Scientific Name: Hamamelis virginiana – The generic name is a combination of the two Greek words: hama which means ‘together’ and mēlon which means ‘fruit.’ The tree has the very odd and distinguishing property that the nutlet fruits are on the tree at the same time as the distinctive string-like yellow flowers. The species name is for its having first been identified in the colony of Virginia.
Potpourri: The bright yellow cynosure in the otherwise tenebrous browns and grays of the winter woodlands marks the unmistakable presence of one of the more iconic indigenous American plants. The Witch Hazel is otherwise an indistinguishable understory tree among the tangle beneath the canopy. The incongruous, curling yellow flowers play a key role in its propagation, a matter of evolutionary pressures that are manifest in all of a plant’s properties. In the case of the mysterious winter flowers, it is to attract pollinators. Inflorescence begins after the leaves have fallen and extends well into the winter, emanating a lemony aroma and extending four inviting tendrils as vectors to its source. While there are few pollinators in the winter, there are almost no other flowers with which to compete. The delicate flowers are surprisingly resilient, their crispation with winter frost a protection against severance. Once pollinated, the flowers morph into nutlets.
The genus of the Witch Hazel, (Hamamelis as discussed above), identifies the sui generis property of having fruit on the tree at the same time as the flowers. This is a consequence of the winter fertilization which delays seed growth until the following vernal seasonal cycle. The nutlets or seed capsules offer a second adaptation of the witch hazel tree to survive the rigors of competition for space, sun and air in the forest understory. Most trees with nuts (notably oaks and hickories), release their nut-fruits to the grasp of gravity – plummeting to earth directly beneath the tree; shade, however, is not an auspicious place to germinate. They survive due to the attentiveness of the ground mammals that rely on the nuts for sustenance, spiriting them away for burial at a removed location (some are inevitably overlooked during the winter forage and become seedlings). The witch hazel has an alternative strategy; the withering of the nut casing causes shrinkage to the point that the outer shell brittle-fractures and sends the two black, shiny seeds of each nut pod up to ten meters away from the tree – no squirrels required. The audibly explosive seed dispersal accentuates the successful propagation of the species, earning the sobriquet “snapping hazelnut” as an alternative colloquial name.
The pliability of the Witch Hazel branches was evidently noticed by the early English colonists, as they gave it a name analogous to the wych elm (Ulmus glabra), a European tree with similarly bendable branches. One may well wonder why a tree with pliable branches would be distinguished according to this property. The origins of the association of Witch Hazel with locating water, a process called water-witching or dowsing, may have extended from the observation that the trees grew in well watered areas, though it is more likely a matter of serendipity. The origins of dowsing itself are even more obscure; even the word is of uncertain etymology. The first known reference was in the seminal 16th Century text of mining and metallurgy De re Metallica written by Georg Bauer, better known by his pen name Georgius Agricola. The ability of some people to find veins of metal ore using tree branches was described as follows: “They … wander hither and thither at random through mountainous regions. It is said that the moment they place their feet on a vein the twig immediately turns and twists, and so by its action discloses the vein; when they move their feet again and go away from that spot the twig becomes once more immobile.” In the chthonian age of alchemy and the doctrine of signatures, this is not all that far afield. The practice of using a forked twig as a means of locating hypogeal things extended from metal to finding (almost) anything, most notably water. In the tabula rasa of North America, the hydrotropic application became paramount, as settlers needed wells near their habitation and water for their crops. The water-witch-hazel became the divining rod of choice, and amateur dowsers sold their water locating services to the unwise and unwary. A definitive dowsing experiment was conducted in Maine in 1949 by L. A. Dale et al and published in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Twenty seven self-proclaimed dowsers were recruited from newspaper ads; a professional geologist and engineer were included as controls. The test site was a sandy area to allow for easy drilling to test water location results. The 27 dowsers were individually (at a rate of 9 per day) tasked with locating all of the sites that they felt were appropriate for well drilling and then asked to repeat the process blind-folded (relying only on the tug of the dowsing twigs). The engineer and the geologist located 16 sites. Subsequent test pipes at the selected locations revealed that “Both controls accurately estimated depth, which ranged from 1 to 3 meters, and the engineer fairly accurately estimated flow, which ranged from 2 to 20 liters per minute. But the diviners’ estimates of depth and flow were wildly high and even the best showed no relation with reality. Worse, the diviners agreed neither with each other nor with themselves when blindfolded.” In spite this and a number of other “double blind” experiments that show dowsing to be ignis fatuus, there is a surprising resiliency to the belief in its efficacy, as dowsers are still a fixture in some rural areas and in parts of Europe.
The best known attribute of Witch Hazel is as an effective medicinal and vulnerary compound. Various Native American tribes independently discovered the healing properties of the bark and twigs, having possibly been attracted to the tree by the unique winter yellow flowers and the popping nuts, their animist religions suggesting the presence of a numinous arboreal spirit. The specific uses by individual Indian groups are legion, from the topical treatment of skin lesions by the Osage Indians of Ohio River Valley to the distilling of a tea from the leaves and twigs for the treatment of diarrhea and respiratory ailments by the Iroquois Indians of New York. In general, the Midwestern Indian Groups used the twigs, bark and leaves directly, heating them of rocks for a steam bath or rubbing them directly on sores whereas the Eastern Indian Groups boiled the twigs to make a liquid that could be used both internally and externally. With colonization proceeding from the East, it was the latter decoctions that first attracted the interest of settlers. In the middle of the 19th Century, Theron T. Pond of Utica, New York became acquainted with the local Oneida Indian Tribe, one of the five Nations of the Iroquois Confederation. On learning of the use and testimonial efficacy of witch hazel by their medicine-man healers, he convinced them to share their secrets, subsequently founding a company in 1846 to manufacture a witch hazel based elixir called “Golden Treasure,” the name possibly a tribute to the golden flowers. He sold the business several years later, shortly before his death; his successors renamed the witch hazel medicine “Pond’s extract” in his honor. After shifting its emphasis to skin care cream products in the early 20th Century, it grew to the international component of Unilever that it is today. Pond was not the only witch hazel entrepreneur. Charles Hawes, an Indian Missionary from Essex, Connecticut, experimented with witch hazel distillations and came up with “Hawes Extract” in 1846. Through acquisition and merger, this ultimately became the Dickinson Company of Connecticut, the current purveyor of witch hazel extract. Witch Hazel is still listed in the U. S. Pharmacopeia, complete with instructions for how to make it: “Macerate a weighed amount of the twigs for about 24 hours in twice their weight of water, then distill until not less than 800 mL and not more than 850 mL of clear, colorless distillate is obtained from each 1000 g of the twigs taken. Add 150 mL of alcohol to each 850 mL of distillate and mix thoroughly.” Recent research on Witch Hazels indicates that its constituent proanthocyandins and hamamelitannins are effective anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agents. The Indians were right.