Witch Hazel, American Witch Hazel, Snapping Hazel
by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living
When in bloom, Witch Hazel might be mistaken for an oversized Forsythia. But the Witch Hazel native to Ohio blooms in November! It’s really worth making a trip to see Witch Hazel in bloom when most other plants are going dormant.
Like most Ohio hardwoods, Witch Hazel has alternate leaves and branches. Opposite leaves and branches are directly across from each other, whereas alternate leaves and branches are staggered, like footprints. The leaves are also simple, meaning that they are attached directly to the permanent parts of the tree, and do not share a stem with other leaflets in groups of 3, 5, 7, etc., depending on the species.
The “Witch” in Witch Hazel comes from the Old English “Wych”, which means, “to bend”, because the twigs are extremely pliable. (The name is also attributed to a number of similar words, including wican, wice, wiche, wick, wicken, and others). Witch Hazel leaves are nearly round, with shallow lobes, and asymmetrical bases. They resemble the leaves of the Hazel (Filbert) tree, hence the common name, “Witch Hazel”. Its Latin name, “Hamamelis”, refers to the fact that it’s in bloom while producing seeds from the previous year’s flowers.
Witch Hazels are small, seldom exceeding 30 feet in height, and often shrubby with multiple trunks. Ohio’s Champion Tree, located in Hocking County, is 31 feet tall, 3.4 inches in diameter at breast height, with a crown width of 30 feet. Witch Hazel bark is smooth to scaly, and gray.
Witch Hazel’s most distinctive feature is its flowers. The flowers have four long, slender yellow petals that twist and curl, and they bloom in late fall, sometimes after the first snowfall. The more westerly Vernal Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) has orange to reddish flowers which, as the name suggests, bloom in the spring. The fruits consist of small, hard capsules containing four black seeds, which are shot out at a distance of as much as 30 feet, often with an audible report!
Witch Hazel is an understory tree and requires moist, but well-drained soil, preferably slightly acidic. Three species of Witch Hazel are native to the U.S., but only H. virginiana is native to Ohio. The range map in Lucy Braun’s The Woody Plants of Ohio shows a somewhat narrower Ohio distribution than the USGS range map. Braun’s map indicates that Witch Hazel is absent in a number of Ohio’s western counties, perhaps because of the abundance of limestone bedrock and, therefore, lower acidity.
Witch Hazel is not sufficiently large or widespread to be used as lumber, so little information on its hardness is available. However, Donald Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America reports that it has a density of 44 pounds per cubic foot (0.70 g/cc), and it is hard and close-grained. This is considerably higher than the median of 0.61 g/cc on my list of 68 Ohio trees. Witch Hazel’s density, and in all likelihood its hardness, are on par with White Ash and Black Oak. Larger pieces of Witch Hazel wood are probably good for small turned objects, and would likely make good firewood.
Witch Hazel’s primary use is medicinal. Peattie’s Natural History says that Witch Hazel was used for various skin conditions and until recently (1964 edition) even as a gargle, but that later research showed it has little or no medical value other than the alcohol in which it was dissolved. But Laura C. Martin’s The Folklore of Trees and Shrubs (1992) says that, “Even today, tea made from the leaves is taken to relieve sore throats and colds”. Alice Thoms Vitale’s Leaves In Myth, Magic, & Medicine reports that early French Canadians consumed Witch Hazel tea, presumably for its medicinal value, but they knew it as “café du diable”–the devil’s coffee. If you use Witch Hazel internally, it’s important not to use the widely-available drugstore varieties, because the plant extracts are typically mixed with denatured alcohol, which is toxic. Witch Hazel extracts today are used externally to treat minor skin irritation and swelling.
The Native American Ethnobotany Database includes the following uses for American Witch Hazel:
- Analgesic – Cherokee
- Dermatological aid – Cherokee, Chippewa, Iroquois, Mohegan
- Cold or sore-throat remedy – Cherokee, Iroquois
- Gynecological aid – Cherokee, Iroquois
- Eye medicine – Chippewa
Witch Hazel seeds are eaten by the birds and rodents, while deer browse on the foliage and twigs. Rabbits browse on small seedlings. The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract flies and wasps, but many common flower feeders are dormant before Witch Hazel blooms.
Witch Hazel twigs are often used to divine or “witch” for underground water and precious mineral deposits. The phrase “water witching” derives from the use of slender twigs, and is probably not connected to the supernatural beings that fly on brooms. Some claim that to be effective, the divining rod has to have grown with one fork facing north and the other south for exposure to the rising and setting sun. Whatever the validity of water witching, it’s easy to see how Witch Hazel gained its mystical reputation when you’ve seen it blooming in the midst of fresh snow.