NYPP Species Highlight: The Lure of the Witch-hazel


As an ecologist, I’m not supposed to be partial to any one particular plant; as a scientist it is unseemly to hail a plant’s magic or mystery. But when it comes to Hammemelis virginiana, our own native witch-hazel, I am helpless. I love the plant and am awed by the lure of its lore.

There is plenty of legend about witch-hazel.

Rumors of magic properties and tales of uncanny predictive powers follow it’s name through history, particularly along the Atlantic coastline. We have seen it arch like a dancer over the creek edge, the zig-zag pattern of its branches catching small streams of light in the dark understory of a hemlock forest. We have heard the singular popping of its year old seeds rustling the leaves after being propelled so many feet through the understory (dispersal at its finest!). We start looking every year around late September for those long yellow petals to curl back suggestively, unleashing that clean, lemony scent that attracts the very few pollinators still searching for nectar this time of year. What other species dares to have such boldness?

And if none of these descriptions bring this plant to mind, there is one more that surely jars our memory: that old bottle sitting in the back of our grandmother’s medicine cabinet…

Many people know witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) as a bottled astringent – not realizing that it is a native shrub. Traditional and modern medicinal uses abound - extracts from the leaves, twigs, and bark are commonly used to reduce inflammation, stop bleeding, cleanse and tone the skin, soothe sunburn, diaper rash, bug bites, rashes and more.

It is said that the name witch-hazel is derived from “wicke hazel,” wicke being the early Anglo-Saxon word for bend. Early settlers believed that the plant could help them locate underground springs. Dowsers (water finders) used forked witch hazel branches growing in a north-south orientation to create the divining rods they used for “water witching.” When they held the forked stick by the tines, it is said that the stick would bend in the presence of an underground water source.

So perhaps the name arose because those early settlers, moved by the way this plant made holy arches over the water. Another theory of the name witch-hazel is related to the sound of the expelled seeds hitting the dry leaves of the forest floor – an eerie sound that sparked whispers of witchcraft being practiced in the dark woods from the Autumnal equinox to Halloween. Still another possible etymology could be related to the witch-hazel leaf gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). These aphids, when chewing on the leaves, secrete chemicals that lead to the formation of cone-like galls that resemble witches hats. Its Latin genus name, Hamamelis means “together with fruit” because tree supports many phenophases (life cycle stages) all at once--flowers, newly ripened fruits from the previous year, old seed-pods from two years before and leaf buds for next year’s growth.

Such abundance and mystery extends to the witch–hazel’s core sexual identity. It turns out that each blossom of the witch-hazel resourcefully contains both sets of reproductive organs (functionally monoecious), but acts as either a male (producing pollen only) or female (producing fruit only), as needed. This plant is not self fertile, so it depends upon pollinators to visit for cross-fertilization to occur. And yet, unhurried and apparently indifferent to the approach of winter, witch-hazel expends enormous amounts of energy putting out blossoms through December and sometimes beyond (blossoms that survive being encased in ice!). The main pollinators in the earlier part of the fall are mainly flies and small bees, with occasional ants and beetles. Winter moths have been reported to be seen visiting the flowers through Fall and Winter, but all in all, the plant’s reproductive strategy – particularly regarding its flowering phenology - remains a bit of a mystery.

The most thorough experimenters postulated that it may have evolved a fall-flowering schedule to avoid competition for pollinators with North America's only other native witch-hazel, the spring-blooming Hamamelis vernalis. But this strategy does not appear to be all that effective anyway as fruit set is extremely low - less than one percent! If the flower is pollinated, fertilization of the seed doesn’t occur until spring. The fruit then develops very slowly during the summer and only becomes ready to pop as flowers begin to open in the fall. Each fruit (a hard, fuzzy, tan-colored capsule) carries only one or two dark, shiny seeds. If left undisturbed on the forest floor after popping, the seeds will germinate two years after dispersal. It is indeed a wonder then that this plant continues to persist as an understory shrub in the Eastern woodland.

Magical lore aside, there are enough good reasons to marvel at this plant to the point of awe. May we all be lucky enough to cross paths this Fall with a witch hazel!

Witch-hazel is one of NYPP’s focal phenology monitoring species. It is observed at multiple locations across the 25 NYPP monitoring sites. To see the species profile for witch-hazel click here. For more information of the reproductive biology of witch-hazel click here.

Let’s give the last word to the poet. And Robert Frost at that.

Reluctance

Out through the fields and the woods

And over the walls I have wended;

I have climbed the hills of view

And looked at the world, and descended;

I have come by the highway home,

And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,

Save those that the oak is keeping

To ravel them one by one

And let them go scraping and creeping

Out over the crusted snow,

When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,

No longer blown hither and thither;

The last lone aster is gone;

The flowers of the witch hazel wither,

The heart is still aching to seek,

But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

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Community Greenways Collaborative manages the New York Phenology Project, utilizing the USA-National Phenology Network database and Nature's Notebook observation platform.