When walking through the woods in winter you might notice a small tree that you would have missed at other times of the year. After other plants lose their leaves, the American witchhazel shows off with fragrant yellow flowers.

It might seem strange to find flowers in the woods when everything else is going dormant, and indeed, even scientists aren’t entirely sure why witchhazel flowers at this time of year.

Most plants produce flowers during warmer months when the insects that pollinate these flowers are more active. Pollination is necessary for many plants to create seeds and reproduce. Because witchazel has such a late flowering period, there are fewer pollinators around; however, there are also not as many flowering plants for witchazel to compete with.

It takes witchhazel an entire year to produce seeds after being pollinated, which is longer than most plants. The flowers are pollinated in the fall and winter but then the seed capsules go dormant for a few months. Come spring, the fruit and seeds begin to develop and seed capsules will mature at the same time as new flowers appear in the coming fall and winter.

When the seeds are ready, they make a show of it. Seed capsules explode and send seeds flying 10 to 30 feet away from the plant. Very few seeds ever make it to the point of germination, but despite the odds, witchhazel plants continue to survive and their flowers provide an important late-season source of pollen and nectar.

The origin of the name

Witchhazel has a unique history of being used as a dowsing rod by European settlers to find sources of water. They would cut “Y” shaped branches and walk holding one side of the “Y” in each hand with their hands parallel to the earth. If the branch started to point downwards then it meant there was a water source.

The common name most likely originated from this practice as “wicke” is middle English for “lively” and “wych” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” Wicke hazel might have changed into witchhazel over time. The practice of dowsing is also called “water witching.”

Dowsing was popular well into the 1900’s but is questioned by modern scientists. The success rate of dowsers is often attributed to the fact that there are ample groundwater sources in most settled locations if you dig deep enough.

Modern uses

Witchhazel has a long history of being used for medicinal purposes and is currently the only plant-based medicine approved by the Federal Drug Administration. An extract distilled from the plant’s bark and roots is still commonly used to treat skin conditions and to reduce inflammation.

Witchhazel in your home

Witchhazel can make a wonderful addition to the home landscape given the right conditions. The shrub can grow to be 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide so it will need ample space. Plant witchhazel on the north side of your home or in semi-shaded habitats. It prefers rich moist soils and requires regular watering when being established.

To learn more about plants and animals in the Chesapeake region, please visit our Field Guide.



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