For plant lovers, the witching hour is nigh.
The wild women of yore will not be flying in on their broomsticks, though it will soon be a time to appreciate a little bit of nature’s magic.
Even with the unseasonably warm weather, do not forget that we are still well into winter. While we have seen a few early blossoms (snowdrops and crocuses have been reported), one plant has the audacity to explode full force into flowers. Boasting unique spidery yellow flowers, witch hazel is doing its wild thing!
Witch hazel, also called winterbloom, is not bucking the trend. Like many plants, the winter variety is a bit early this year.
There are a few different types of witch hazel: Some species flower in the fall and others flower in late winter. Common witch hazel is the fall bloomer, while vernal witch hazel shows off in the winter. Both plants are in the genus Hamamelis, which means ‘together with fruit,’ referring to the fact that its flowers, fruit and the next season’s buds are all on the plant at one time.
Henry David Thoreau made this observation about witch hazel: “There is something witchlike in the appearance of witch hazel...with its irregular and angular spray, and petals like furies’ hair of small ribbon streamers. It’s blossoming, too, at this irregular period when other shrubs have lost their leaves as well as blossoms, looks like witches’ craft.” Ironically, though, the name witch hazel isn’t primarily derived from the word witch.
The name comes from the root wiche or wych, meaning pliant or bendable. In Old English wych refers to elm or hazelnut trees, neither of which is related to this plant. (Wychwood Lane in Edgartown derives from this meaning, not from any association with witches.) It is assumed that colonists called the plant witch hazel due to its resemblance to their hometown species.
Its flexible twigs were certainly pliant and bendable, but they had another use. Oil, water, coal, copper, and even lost objects could be divined using witch hazel twigs. Of course, not everyone simply needed to pick up a stick to discover riches under the ground. Only those that “have the witching gift,” called dowsers, could use the rod successfully.
Even if you didn’t have the gift, witch hazel could still be of value. It has long been known for its medicinal properties, as an astringent, for digestive distress, skin disorders, oral care, and even to provide relief for hemorrhoids.
Some take it as a tea, but its taste is likely not very pleasurable, since French Canadians called the drink that they made with it “café du diable,” or devil’s coffee. Witch hazel continues to be available over the counter, and our neighboring state of Connecticut is where the industry is still centered.
Beware if you catch the plant when it is spreading its seeds. Small black seeds erupt from its capsule with an audible blast. You can actually hear the popping, and the force can throw the seeds up to 50 feet from the mother plant. These seeds can be crushed to produce oil or simply eaten. They are said to taste similar to pistachios.
It is difficult not to be bewitched by this blossoming beauty for both its curative powers and its ability to flower in winter; in this way it is a balm for the spirit as well as the body.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.