When asked whether she was a good witch or a bad witch, Dorothy from Kansas replied that she was not a witch at all. “Witches are mean and ugly,” she scowled. The one who asked her this was indeed a witch herself – a good and beautiful one to boot. Dorothy could be excused for not knowing that there was such a thing as a good witch because she was, after all, from Kansas. There are no good witches in Kansas. They live in the forested parts of the eastern U.S. and although they can be explosive at times, they are providers of healing tinctures of great value. They also sooth hemorrhoids.
The beneficial healer of which I speak is none other than Witch Hazel. No, not the green hag who chased Bugs Bunny in the classic Warner Brother cartoons, but the slightly ugly yet good plant. One look at this understory tree in late October (see here) will immediately reveal that there is something odd and magical about it. A shrubby multi-stemmed tree, the Witch Hazel chooses to bloom long after all other plants have gone to seed in late fall and early winter. The stringy yellow flowers are constructed of four confetti-like petals befitting a bloom of the witching time. These odd looking blossoms last for several weeks and do not shy away from the killing frosts of the season. When things get too cold, they simply curl up to protect their private parts and unfurl in the warmth of the daytime sun.
All healers should be mystical, but why bother with the winter flower thing? The reason appears to be quite simple: they are the only store open for nectar loving insects. Most insects are dead by this time, but many flies, members of the wasp family, and a few beetles are still tooling about. The only place where they can satisfy their hunger for sweets is that crummy looking shack down by the railroad tracks operated by wart nosed hag called Hazel. “If you don’t like the food,” she hisses,” then hit the road because this is the only joint open. What’ll it be?” The menu is limited to pollen and watered down nectar.
The most frequent customers are diminutive Fungus Gnats. In the process of licking away at the scant amount of nectar, or nibbling on pollen, they manage to cross pollinate the other flowers. Thanks to the patronage of the late season crowd, the flowers are able to develop into hard seed capsules. It takes an entire year to finish the process. Take a look at this detail photo and you can see these maturing capsules right next to the newly opened crop of flower clusters. True to their off beat nature, Witch Hazels have developed an explosive way to send their seeds out into the world. These capsules build up internal pressure until they literally pop open and send their seeds on an airborne journey. Emitting an audible “pop”, each pod ejects two shiny brown seeds which are each about the size of an apple seed. Although a journey of 10 to 20 feet is normal, some records indicate that seeds have been propelled up to 10 yards away. Be careful when you step near Hazel’s place on a sunny October day, she will shoot at you!
It certainly spoils our fun to look deeper at the name of this ballistic plant, but I’ll risk it. You see, “witch” actually comes from the old English “wiche” which means to bend. “Hazel” comes from the fact that the leaves look like those of the Hazel – a nut bearing shrub of equal size. “Pliable Fake Nut Bush” doesn’t quite cut it. I much prefer the mythical connotation because it does truly deserve it. Apart from all the mysterious flowering and seed ways, the stem and leaves are ancient sources for medication. As a modern ingredient in a plethora of lotions, astringent pads (this is where the hemorrhoids come in), and alcohol based curatives, Witch Hazel is a common drugstore product.
As if all this wasn’t enough, this plant has one more mythical association. Water Witchers, those who claim the ability to locate well water sites, often use the pliable stems of Witch Hazel to ply their craft. It seems that the plant itself has no power to discern water, but it is the operator that supplies the magic in this case.
There is plenty of the wonderful and good to be found within the Witches’ Hazel and so it is good for thee to seek it out for the benefit of both thine eye and thine bottom.