Aldona Bird, Contributors, Latest News

Bewitched by witch hazel

Lately, a shrub that grows in the woods around my house has been catching my eye. The same shrub got my attention late in the fall last year. The plant in question — witch hazel.

Its current eye-catching feature is seedpods clustered along slender branches. Last fall I noticed the fragrant brilliant yellow flowers.

This native shrub has some interesting features, as well as healing properties.

There are several witch hazel varieties, three of which are native to the United States, and a couple others to Asia. In this area, Hamamelis virginiana, or American witch hazel, is native.

I’ve also noticed a few witch hazels blooming around my home in late winter and very early spring. I haven’t positively identified them, but they are likely Hamamelis vernalis — native to central and southern United States.

Both have scented yellow flowers with four ribbon-like petals blooming after the leaves fall. They bloom late in the year, when it is usually cold, so their pollination is a bit of a mystery. Some sources say moths pollinate them.

This led me to learn that there are winter flying moths which can thermoregulate, allowing them to fly in temperatures too cold for most other insects.

While this seems like an easy identification of the pollinator of these cold weather bloomers, other sources hypothesize that the situation is more complex. Observational studies have found that on warm days many pollinators visit witch hazel flowers.

These include small bees and flies — particularly gnats. While these aren’t the most efficient pollinators, they do carry some pollen between flowers. The more efficient bees seemed to visit the flowers less frequently.

There might also be a night flying pollinator, not yet observed, helping the cause.

Once pollinated, the shrubs go dormant, waiting until spring to set seeds. The seeds also take their sweet time to mature, staying on the tree until the following autumn. They apparently often overlap with next season’s flowers.

When the seeds mature they make a dramatic exit from their pods. The pods pop, propelling the seeds away from the drip line of the parent shrub. I read that seeds typically fly a 10-to-15-foot distance, and observers have seen them go as far as 45 feet.

The origin of the common name of this plant seems to be another mystery — some say it comes from the use of its branches as “witching sticks” to find underground water. Others say there are middle English words similar to “witch” for lively and bendable, maybe referring to the flexibility of its branches.

The genus name, Hamamelis, comes from the Greek words for simultaneous and fruit, referring to the unusual characteristic of blooming at the same time as the seeds mature.

A common ingredient in cosmetics, witch hazel has strong astringent and antiseptic properties. Native Americans used it to reduce inflammation and fever.

The clear liquid, available on pharmacy shelves with the same name as the plant, is made by a steam distillation process using leaves, bark and twigs. The bark has the highest tannins and other chemicals which give the resulting product medicinal properties.

Steam distillation is not the only way to extract the beneficial properties of witch hazel. I read that bringing the bark to a boil, simmering for 20 minutes, cooling, straining and then adding half the total volume of grain alcohol or vodka creates an effective witch hazel tonic.

Now that I know how, and have witch hazel growing nearby, I may try making some witch hazel tonic for my own personal care use.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email