Leaves are fading to shades of brown and gray and dropping fast in the late fall winds as I walk along a local trail. At this time of year, I am always surprised when I come across a flash of bright yellow from the last native flowering plant of the year: the native American Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It’s a 20- to 30-foot (6- to 10-meter) small tree or shrub with crinkly, bright yellow ribbon-like petals that are often found among the medium-yellow autumn foliage. The flowers will last even after its leaves turn brown and fall off. Witch-Hazel blooms from September through November.
I have often wondered… what could pollinate a flower so late in the season, when all other flowers have faded and the weather can be quite cold? Late-flying bees and parasitic wasps have been suggested, but biologist Bernd Heinrich discovered that a few species in the Owlet Moth family (Noctuidae) feed on the tree sap as well as nectar from the fragrant flowers of Witch-Hazel. How do they do it? They shake. By shivering its flight muscles, this moth can raise its temperature by 50°F (27.8°C) above the air temperature! And owlet moths are active at night, when they warm their bodies to 86°F (30°C) to be able to fly. They will lose this heat quickly, so they need to stop often to shiver again.
There are two other natives—Ozark Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and Big-Leaf Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis ovalis)—and two non-native witch-hazels—the Chinese Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) and Japanese Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis japonica). Unlike our native witch-hazels, these non-native species bloom in late winter and early spring. There are several hybrids of early, yellow-, orange-, or red-blooming cultivars of these.
The origin of the name Witch-Hazel is the Old English wice, meaning “bendable.” This may refer to the plant’s curved branching or that its branches are used by dowsers to find water, which was common until the beginning of the twentieth century. A dowsing rod allegedly points downward to water underground. The name “hazel” comes from the resemblance of Witch-Hazel fruit to the fruit of the unrelated American Hazelnut (Corylus americana).
The fruit of American Witch-Hazel is a two-part, greenish seed capsule that becomes woody. It takes eight months to one year for fruits to ripen. When this plant releases its seeds, it does it in a spectacular way. The outer layer of the ripe fruit both shrinks and expands, constricting the middle section, and forcing the seeds out with an audible snap or crack at more than 32 feet (10 meters) per second! Witch-Hazel is also called “Snapping Hazel” because of this. A ridge in the fruit’s inner chamber causes the seed when “fired” to spin like a bullet up to 430 times per second. The fruit can send the seed up to 30 feet (10 meters) away, an evolutionary advantage to reach potentially improved growing conditions.
According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, there are 60 species of butterflies and moths that feed on Witch-Hazel leaves. Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bob-White, Wild Turkeys, Eastern Gray Squirrels, and Eastern Cottontail Rabbits all eat Witch-Hazel fruit.
American Witch-Hazel is also useful to people. Native Americans used extracts from the branches and leaves medicinally, such as boiling the stems to make a decoction to treat swelling and inflammation. Early settlers in New England adopted these practices and use became widely established.
Missionary Dr. Charles Hawes learned of Witch-Hazel’s therapeutic properties and created his own extract by steam distillation of the twigs and bark. “Hawes Extract” was first produced and sold in Essex, Connecticut, by druggist Alvan Whittemore in 1846.
Thomas Newton Dickinson, Sr., refined Hawes’s process and is credited with the first commercial production of Witch-Hazel extract, also in Essex, Connecticut, in 1866. After his death his two sons, Thomas N. Dickinson, Jr., and Everett E. Dickinson, continued the family business with competing “Dickinson’s” businesses in different towns.
Eventually, the two companies came under the same corporate ownership. Today, Dickinson Brands still sells Witch-Hazel under the T. N. Dickinson and Dickinson’s labels. Witch-Hazel extract is used as an astringent to remove oils and impurities from the skin and also as an eye wash. Many people swear by it. Clearly there is more to Witch-Hazel than meets the eye. From its lovely delicate flowers that bloom when few flowers are still around, to its unique seed dispersal, to its long history as a useful plant to humans, the remarkable Witch-Hazel has much to recommend it.