A Strange Winter and Early Spring?

At this time of year, there are several signs of spring. I've noticed that the pussy willows have already appeared, and yesterday, I saw the first tentative tightly furled spath of the skunk cabbage. Another sign, along with the appearance of red-winged blackbirds, is the blooming of witch hazel. Hamemelis virginiana, or Witch Hazel, is native to North America, growing in rich woods and along streams – ranging from Maine south to Florida, and west to the Plains. This bush or small tree generally has several stems arising from one root, and grows about 10 – 15’ in height. The smooth bark is light brown to grey in color, with light colored circular spots. The leaves are large and ovoid, with wavy edges. One of witch hazel’s special attributes is that it flowers in the fall, creating a colorful counterpoint to the denuded landscape. The flowers, with yellow, strap-like petals, often bloom after the plant has dropped its leaves, anytime from September through November.

The plant I have, which is blooming now, is a variety that blooms in the spring. It must have been a grafted plant, because part of it also blooms in the fall. Hamemelis vernalis, with distinctive orange-red blossoms, is native to the Ozarks and flowers there the end of December. If grown in the north, vernal witch hazel will bloom early in the spring. H. mollis (Chinese), has bright, highly fragrant flowers and H. japonica (Japanese), sports greenish-yellow flowers. There are other cultivars with new, improved blooms, such as “Arnold’s Promise” a cross between H. mollis and H. japonica.

The witch hazel nuts ripen simultaneously as the flowers appear, thus earning the name “Hamemelis” or fruit at the same time. Shiny black seeds are contained in a hard, round seed capsule which splits open when mature. If disturbed by strong wind or animals when ripe, the seeds can be flung from the capsule with a loud, popping sound as far as 20-30 feet. This unique feature most likely gave rise to the common name “Snapping Hazelnut.” Forked branches of witch hazel have often been used by dowsers in search of water or precious metals, and even to seek out witches. However, the old English word “wych”, meaning pliable branches, may be the actual source of the derivation “witch” as early settlers found the branches of Hamemelis to be well-suited to the task of dowsing.

The first settlers learned about witch hazel from the Native Americans, who had used witch hazel as a medicinal plant for many different purposes, such as inflammations, dysentery, skin sores, colds and coughs. The Iroquois made a tea-like beverage from the dried leaves, sweetening it with maple syrup. The Potawatomi used it for sore muscles, making an infusion of the twigs, and then dropping hot stones in the water to create steam – a native “sauna”. In the 1840’s, Theron T. Pond of Utica, NY spent time learning of the Oneida Indians usage of the plant. He created a preparation called “Golden Treasure” in 1848, and this distilled extract is today produced in CT. by Dickinson’s and the American Distilling and Manufacturing Co. It is noteworthy in that it is one of a handful of commercial medicines prepared from a wild, American plant.

Interestingly enough, despite witch hazel’s long history and many uses, there is no agreement in the medical community as to its effectiveness. It is astringent, tonic, and sedative. Due to its tannin content, it has been used a first aid for minor burns and scalds, and to soothe both sunburn and insect bites. Its astringency makes it an excellent skin refresher, and helps with minor skin blemishes, bags under the eyes, and is an ingredient in many hemorrhoid preparations. The late Euell Gibbons called it “the epitome of herbal remedy” due to the fact that it is mild and gentle, and generally safe.

An enterprising person could make the distilled extract, but it would be very time-consuming and more costly than purchasing a bottle. I’ve always had a bottle in the house, as my mother and her mother did. It’s nice to know that an herbal preparation that is so useful is still available and manufactured here in New England today.