(Hamamelis Virginiana) Witch-hazel family
Flowers - Yellow, fringy, clustered in the axils of branches.
Calyx 4-parted; 4 very narrow curving petals about 34 in. long; 4
short stamens, also 4 that are scale-like; 2 styles. Stem: A
tall, crooked shrub. Leaves: Broadly oval,
mostly fallen at flowering time. Fruit: Woody capsules maturing
the next season and remaining with flowers of the succeeding year
(Hama = together with; mela = fruit).
Preferred Habitat - Moist woods or thickets near streams.
Flowering Season - August-December.
Distribution - Nova Scotia and Minnesota, southward to the Gulf
To find a stray. apple blossom among the fruit in autumn, or an
occasional violet deceived by caressing Indian Summer into
thinking another spring has come, surprises no one; but when the
witch-hazel bursts into bloom for the first time in November, as
if it were April, its leafless twigs conspicuous in the gray
woods with their clusters of spidery pale yellow flowers, we
cannot but wonder with Edward Rowland Sill:
"Has time grown sleepy at his post
And let the exiled Summer back?
Or is it her regretful ghost,
Or witchcraft of the almanac?"
Not to the blue gentian but to the witch-hazel should Bryant have
addressed at least the first stanza of his familiar lines (See
Fringed Gentian). The shrub doubtless gives the small bees and
flies their last feast of the season in consideration of their
services in transferring pollen from the staminate to the fertile
flowers. Very slowly through the succeeding year the seeds within
the woody capsules mature until, by the following autumn, when
fresh flowers appear, they are ready to bombard the neighborhood
after the violets' method, in the hope of landing in moist
yielding soil far from the parent shrub to found a new colony.
Just as a watermelon seed shoots from between the thumb and
forefinger pinching it, so the large, bony, shining black,
white-tipped witch-hazel seeds are discharged through the elastic
rupture of their capsule whose walls pinch them out. To be
suddenly hit in the face by such a missile brings no smile while
the sting lasts. Witch-hazel twigs ripening indoors transform a
peaceful living room into a defenseless target for light
Nowhere more than in the naming of wild flowers can we trace the
homesickness of the early English colonists in America. Any plant
even remotely resembling one they had known at home was given the
dear familiar name. Now our witch-hazel, named for an English
hazel tree of elm lineage, has similar leaves it is true, but
likeness stops there; nevertheless, all the folklore clustered
about that mystic tree has been imported here with the title. By
the help of the hazel's divining-rod the location of hidden
springs of water, precious ore, treasure, and thieves may be
revealed, according to old superstition. Cornish miners, who live
in a land so plentifully stored with tin and copper lodes they
can have had little difficulty in locating seams of ore with or
without a hazel rod, scarcely ever sink a shaft except by its
The literature of Europe is filled with allusions to it. Swift
"They tell us something strange and odd
About a certain magic rod
That, bending down its top divines
Where'er the soil has hidden mines
Where there are none, it stands erect
Scorning to show the least respect."
A good story is told on Linnaeus in Baring-Gould's "Curious Myths
of the Middle Ages": "When the great botanist was on one of his
voyages, hearing his secretary highly extol the virtues of his
divining-wand, he was willing to convince him of its
insufficiency, and for that purpose concealed a purse of one
hundred ducats under a ranunculus, which grew by itself in a
meadow, and bid the secretary find it if he could. The wand
discovered nothing, and Linnaeus's mark was soon trampled down by
the company present, so that when he went to finish the
experiment by fetching the gold himself, he was utterly at a loss
where to find it. The man with the wand assisted him, and
informed him that it could not lie in the way they were going,
but quite the contrary so they pursued the direction of the wand,
and actually dug out the gold. Linnaeus said that another such
experiment would be sufficient to make a proselyte of him."
Many a well has been dug even in this land of liberty where our
witch-hazel indicated; but here its kindly magic is directed
chiefly through the soothing extract distilled from its juices.
Previous: BLACK MUSTARD
Next: FIVEFINGER COMMON CINQUEFOIL
|ADD TO EBOOK