One of the last flowering shrubs of the year, American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a hiker’s delight when spotted late in the fall. Native to both the northeastern and southeastern parts of the U.S., their fragrant bright yellow blossoms appear late in the autumn after all the leaves have fallen from the other woodland species.
I used to see the lovely American witchhazel shrub blossoming during my turkey hunts. The shrub prefers semi-shaded habitat, so I would often see it along the edges of the wildlife trails I used for scouting. The plant likes rich, moist soils, so it is right at home along the edges of the hardwood. I don’t hunt anymore, but I often walk along the woods and look forward to every fall at the hunting property.
The extraordinary flowers are bright yellow, with four very slender bright yellow petals measuring from 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch long. The spicy fragrance of the flowers is so welcome in the late fall. The American witchhazel leaves are large, with uneven teeth, alternate, simple, broadly ovate, 2-1/2 to 6 inches long, unequal offset leaf base, and with the upper surface dark green, and the lower surface a paler green. It is considered a “service berry.”
What Pollinates the Witchhazel?
A winter owlet moth known as a sallow. These moths have a remarkable ability to heat themselves by using energy to shiver in order to fly in search of food, thus raising their body temperature by as much as 50 degrees. Other pollinators include flies and maybe some bees.
The fruit of the Witchhazel blossoms goes dormant during the winter, developing into a seed during the following growing season. Once the seed is fully developed, it is expelled some 20 or more feet in the autumn. Although minuscule, the seeds are edible and are high in fat and protein. Witchhazel is the host plant for the spring azure butterfly,
The most interesting use for the plant has been the use of its forked limbs as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settlers observed Native Americans using American witchhazel to find underground sources of water. This is where the common name witchhazel came from. “Wicke” is the Middle English for “lively” and “wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” American witchhazel was probably called wicke hazel by early white settlers because the dowsing end of the forked branch would bend when underground water was detected by the dowser. Dowsing became an established feature of well digging into the 20th and even now in the 21st century. (U.S. Forest Service)
The astringent called “witch hazel” is made from the leaves and bark of the witchhazel shrub. It is used to treat a variety of ailments from acne to insect bites, and for more aesthetic uses from aftershave lotion to tightening baggy skin.
Transmittal photo by Dorothy Boyer.
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