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Trees With Flowers Or Fruits - The Witch Hazel

( Originally Published 1927 )



Eighteen genera compose the sub-tropical family in which hamamelis is the type. Two or three Asiatic species and one American are known.

The witch hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana, Linn.) is a stout, many-stemmed shrub or a small tree,; with rough unsymmetrical leaves, strongly veined, coarsely toothed, and roughly diamond-shaped. The twigs, when bare, are set with hairy sickle-shaped buds. Nowhere. in summer would an under-growth of witch hazel trees attract attention. But in autumn, when other trees have reached a state of utter rest, the witch hazel wakes and bursts into bloom. Among the dead leaves which stubbornly cling as they yellow, and often persist until spring, the tiny buds, the size of a pin-head, open into starry blossoms with petals like gold threads. The witch hazel thicket is veiled with these gold-mesh flowers, as ethereal as the haunting perfume which they exhale. Frost crisps the delicate petals but they curl up like shavings and stay till spring. At no time is the weather cold enough to destroy this November flower show.

Among the blossoms are the pods in clusters, gaping wide if the seeds are shed; closed tight, with little monkey faces, if not yet open. The harvest of witch hazel seeds is worth going far to see. Damp weather delays this most interesting little game. Dry frosty weather is ideal for it.

Go into a witch hazel thicket on some fine morning in early November and sit down on the drift of dead leaves that carpet the woods floor. The silence is broken now and then by a sharp report like a bullet striking against the bark of a near-by trunk, or skipping among the leaves. Perhaps a twinge on the ear shows that you have been a target for some tiny projectile, sent to its mark with force enough to hurt.

The fusillade comes from the ripened pods, which have a remarkable ability to, throw their seeds, and thus do for the parent tree what the winged seeds of other trees accomplish. The lining of the two-celled pod is believed to shorten and produce a spring that drives the seeds forth with surprising force when they are loosened from their attachment. This occurs when the lips part. Frost and sun seem to decide just when to spring the trap and let fly the little black seeds.

A young botanist went into the woods to find out just how far a witch hazel tree can throw its seeds. She chose an isolated tree and spread white muslin under it for many yards in four directions. The most remote of the many seeds she caught that day fell eighteen feet from the base of the tree.

The Indians in America were the first people to use the bark of the witch hazel for curing inflammations. An in-fusion of the twigs and roots is now made by boiling them for twenty-four hours in water to which alcohol has been added. "Witch hazel extract," distilled from this mixture, is the most popular preparation to use for bruises and sprains, and to allay the pain of burns. Druggists and chemists have failed to discover any medicinal properties in bark or leaf, but the public has faith in it. The alcohol is probably the effective agent.

Witch hazel comes honestly by its name. The English "witch hazel" is a species of elm to which superstitious miners went to get forked twigs to use as divining rods. No one in the countryside would dream of sinking a shaft for coal without the use of this forked twig. In any old and isolated country district in America there is usually a man whose reputation is based in his skilful use of a forked witch hazel twig. Sent for before a well is dug, he slowly walks over the ground, holding the twig erect by its two supple forks, one in each hand. When he passes over the spot where the hidden springs of water are, the twig goes down, without any volition of the "water-witch." At least, so he says, and if water is struck by digging, his claims are vindicated and scoffers hide their heads.



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