Wednesday, October 31, 2012


© Dave Spier

Sounds like a Halloween shrub, but this "witch" comes from Middle English wiche (from Old English wice) meaning "bendable" and was applied to the Wych Elm. Colonists, not being botanists, transferred the name to the American shrub because the branches were used as divining rods, also called "witching sticks" (to find underground water or precious metals) in the fashion of flexible elm and hazel twigs in England. American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is superficially similar to hazel, especially the leaves.

Witch-hazel is unusual in that it blossoms in the fall. It's yellow flowers with straggly petals are hidden until the wavy-edged, golden leaves drop. The flowers may persist into winter, giving the shrub the nickname "winterbloom." 

At the same time as flowers appear, last year's fruits are maturing. The oily seed interiors are edible and supposedly taste like pistachios. Warm weather will cause the capsules to "explode," a neat trick of nature to disperse the seeds away from the parent's shade. The same thing will happen if you bring the twigs inside.
Witch-hazel long has been used as an external astringent to treat sores, acne, hemorrhoids, insect bites and poison ivy among other things. The Iroquois made a strong tea to treat dysentery, coughs and colds. The bark contains the highst concentration of hamamelitannin, one of the active ingredients. Proanthocyandin extracts have anti-viral properties and reduce inflammation. [Do not try this at home without researching the details, or consult with your doctor.]

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