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Witch Hazel (What Time is it in Nature)

January 17, 2015

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge! Terra is a student at North Carolina State University majoring in Plant and Soil Science with a concentration in Crop Biotechnology.

Although most of the plants are currently in their winter dormant stage at Prairie Ridge, one of the latest bloomers is the American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  While most plants typically bloom in the spring, Witch Hazel blooms in the late fall once all of the leaves have dropped.  In fact, some individual shrubs and species have blooms that linger well into the early winter.

Witch Hazel

The American Witch Hazel is a perennial shrub or small tree typically reaching 12 to 15 feet in height.  The woody plant has smooth gray bark with zigzagged branches that tend to form an upright shape.  The deciduous leaves of the Witch Hazel are broad and oval-shaped with large wavy teeth on the margins and range from 2.5 to 6 inches in length.  The leaves have a dark green appearance and turn a radiant shade of gold in the fall.

Witch Hazel has unique flowers.  Blooming occurs from September through November after the leaves have fallen.  The small pale to bright yellow blooms each contain four long and slender petals that resemble streamers.  Flowering occurs simultaneously with the maturing fruit from the previous year, hence the name Hamamelis meaning “together with fruit”.  The flowers produce small, tan to gray hard capsules with two compartments, each containing a seed.  The capsules go dormant throughout the winter and develop over the next growing season.  In the autumn, about 8 months after flowering, the capsules fully mature and burst open to launch the two shiny black seeds up to 20 feet from the tree.  The seeds then take an additional year to germinate.

The American Witch Hazel is native to North America and grows from southeastern Canada to Minnesota in the north and reaches south from Florida to eastern Texas.  Witch Hazel is abundant in the Appalachian Mountains where it can grow to even taller heights.  The slow-growing shrub fares best in rich, moist, and slightly acidic soils of shaded sites in forests and at the forest edge.  Witch Hazel can tolerate wet or poor soils and pollution, and has relatively few pests.  Keep in mind that flowering does not start until the plants are at least six years old.

Witch hazel is commonly known for its medicinal uses, however historically it had a much more unusual purpose!  Native Americans once used the forked limbs of the Witch Hazel branches as dowsing or divining rods to detect water sources.  The dowsing end of the forked branch would bend underground in the earth when water was detected.  This process was later used by early European settlers and eventually became an established component of well-digging.  Currently the bark of the Witch Hazel is commercially used to make an astringent or alcohol extract, which also goes by the name Witch Hazel .  The astringent is used both medicinally and in healthcare products for sores, bruises, swelling, hemorrhoids, aftershave applications, to remedy psoriasis, eczema, and even to treat insect bites, poison ivy, and varicose veins.  Witch Hazel is recommended for women to reduce swelling and to soothe wounds from childbirth.  The plant is also a food source for the larvae of some lepidopteran species (butterflies and moths) and in return the adults are important pollinators for the plant.  The fruits of the plant are and important food source for some birds as well.

If you would like to see the American Witch Hazel , come out to Prairie Ridge where we have fine examples located in the Nature Neighborhood Garden and the Jesse P. Perry Arboretum.  The trees just finished their bloom for the year, but you can still see the flower petals attached to the branches and the start of next year’s seed crop.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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