Have you ever heard of a shrub that blooms just as it loses its leaves in the fall? How about a shrub that shoots its seeds 10 to 20 feet away with a loud pop? Or a familiar product available at any drugstore which is distilled from a shrub’s twigs? Well, the witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is that shrub and it grows right here in the Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park.
The witch hazel has unusual yellow flowers with narrow twisted petals, that look like little stars. It blooms from September to December, and this long flowering period increases the odds of pollination since fewer insects are active this late in the year. Although pollinated in late fall/early winter, fertilization (and thus seed development) does not occur until the spring.
How did the plant come by its unusual name? Some people speculate that it is simply such an odd plant, people once thought it was supernatural. Others point to the long tradition of using forked witch hazel branches as divining rods for “water witching” or dowsing. According to The Book of Forest and Thicket by John Eastman, the word “witch” is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word “wych” (related to the word wicker) which means bending and, thus, it describes the crooked growth habit of witch hazel stems.
However it got its name, this is a plant worth seeing (and hearing) if you are lucky enough to be there when the seed pods burst. ■
© 2005 NFCCA [Source: https://nfcca.org/news/nn200512e.html]