I was out for a drive after Hurricane Sandy and noticed the storm had speeded up the leaf drop a little. Because of that I was able to see some of the most interesting late fall flowers in the landscape.
Wild witch hazel has yellow flowers with long ribbon-like petals. Usually these bloom after the leaves drop, but in the southern part of its range leaves persist a little longer and sometimes mask the beautiful blooms. This shrub is rare in most of the counties around the Albemarle Sound but is more common elsewhere in our state.
In some parts of the country witch hazel attains heights of 25-30 feet, but it rarely gets that large around here. I have never seen specimens remotely close to that, which is why I refer this multi-stemmed plant as a shrub and not a tree. It has toothed leaves which emerge from the branches singly. Foliage looks similar to that of the hazelnut tree, which may partly explain the name.
Another interesting feature of the shrub is that the previous year’s fruit matures at about the same time as the present year’s flowers appear. When mature and dried, the fruits can violently shoot a pair of black edible seeds as far as 30 feet. Keep this in mind if you are inclined to bring some inside for a fall flower arrangement. Also, if you wish to grow new plants from seeds they require a cold treatment and can take as long as 18 months to germinate.
Witch hazel is normally an understory plant and it thrives in shady locations. If soil is moist it grows well in sun, particularly in the northern reaches of its range, which runs into many provinces of Canada. It can tolerate low temperatures of minus 35 degrees.
When grown in sunny locations, fall color is richer. In our area it makes a fine border shrub as it has few disease and insect problems. It provides food and cover for wildlife. One problem is that it is shallow rooted and doesn’t tolerate drought very well.
Early settlers used a forked branch of witch hazel for dowsing or divining rods to find water. Some even swore they helped find gold too. Many still swear by witch hazel dowsing rods. This might also explain the witch hazel name. These individuals who sought out water with a forked stick were sometimes called ‘water witches.’
A more proven use for witch hazel is found in all drug stores. Many aftershave products contain it. Witch hazel extract has been used for itching, burns, swelling, inflammation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, excessive bleeding and many other maladies.
Witch hazel contains bitter astringent chemicals called tannins. They are antimicrobial styptic compounds. When applied directly to the skin these extracts reduce swelling and help fight bacteria.
When overused as a topical treatment, dry skin is common. As far as internal use is concerned I suggest consulting your doctor. Many frequently encounter upset stomach, nausea and constipation if overused internally. Large doses can also cause liver problems.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.