Witch hazel


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.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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13 Responses to Witch hazel

  1. david brice says:

    now that is a violent plant with shooting seeds

  2. I have never heard of this untill now. I dont think i will ever eat these

  3. kimberlypaigeweaver says:

    I have never heard of this before. I didnt know that it was in aftershave or anything like that.

  4. I have never heard of witch hazel, but I am fascinated that it helps with like swelling and other wounds you may have.

  5. awhitenhs12 says:

    Never heard of this plant in my life, pretty cool that it helps wounds, didnt know it was in products either.

  6. sbright16 says:

    I’ve never heard of this before i think that it’s a good thing that a plant can help with wounds.

  7. Ive never seen this plant but its interesting that it can have the treatments it does

  8. susiehedley says:

    It’s very interesting to know about the witch hazel history, like the “water witches.” It seems very useful.

  9. Morgan Murray says:

    Wild witch hazel is rare in most of the counties around the Albemarle Sound but is more common in other parts of North Carolina. This plant can reach heights of 25-30 feet. It lives in shady locations unless the soil is moist then it will grow in the sun. It has few disease and insect problems. I find it interesting that the early settlers used a forked branch of witch hazel for dowsing or divining rods to find water. They are very beneficial plants considering they can also reduce swelling and help fight bacteria when applied to the skin.

  10. I think it would be cool to see this plant in person considering I’ve never heard about it until now.

  11. jordan2197 says:

    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 in North Carolina. 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 the hazelnut tree. 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. They take as long as 18 months to germinate. they thrive in shady areas, if the soil is moist they grow in the sun.

  12. ashleychory says:

    Wild witch hazel is common in other parts of North Carolina. The plant can reach the heights of 25-30 feet. It lives in shady locations but can grow in the sun. It has few disease. it also has insect problems. wild witch hazel are beneficial plants since they can reduce swelling and help fight bacteria when applied to the skin. the wild witch hazel takes 18 months to germinate.

  13. hurricane sandy honestly really messed up a lot of things most people dont think it did.

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