"Through the gray and somber wood
Against the dusk of fir and pine
Last of their floral sisterhood
The hazel's yellow blossoms shine."
-- from "Hazel Blossoms" by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1874
On a winter walk in the woods a couple of years ago, I noticed something intriguing. Certain small, slender trees were dotted with yellow. And that yellow, striking against the pale winter landscape, had a wild look. Clusters of little, unruly-looking yellow 'straps' dotted these trees' bare branches.
I learned that the yellow was the bloom of witch hazel, North America's only tree that wears its flowers, ripe fruit, and next year's buds on its branches all at the same time. And that time is winter!
Each flower on the witch hazel tree is made of four strap-shaped yellow petals. The flowers are pollinated by bees and flies. But since few bees and flies are buzzing about in November and December, the pollination rate is low, and only a small proportion of witch hazel flowers produce mature fruit. And even though pollination takes place late in the year, fertilization of the ovules does not occur until the following spring. The fruit then begins to develop, and it is ripe by the following fall or winter, after the witch hazel tree has lost its leaves and the tree's flowers bloom.
Witch hazel fruit are two-part capsules, with a single black, glossy seed contained in each part. During the late fall and winter months, the ripened capsules suddenly burst open with a loud snap. The seeds are ejected so forcefully that they can be propelled as far as 30 feet from the tree. Witch hazel seeds are food for grouse, rabbits, beavers, and other animals. The seeds germinate the following spring.
My curiosity about the witch hazel was renewed several weeks ago when I hiked in the Shenandoah National Park with two friends. We were delighted to spot some witch hazel trees in their full, ragged bloom. But near the blooming trees, we saw other witch hazel trees that were not flowering. Where their flowers would have been were instead tiny, flattish, yellow-rimmed circles that were dark in the middle. We surmised that these compact little forms were flowers not yet opened. But it seemed strange that such a tight, orderly-looking form could open into something so rangy and disordered-looking as the witch hazel flower.
The witch hazel tree has a long history of human uses. Back in the 1840s, writes West Virginia ecologist Elizabeth Byers, an entrepreneur named Theron Pond of Utica, New York, formed a partnership with the Oneida tribe to make and market an astringent lotion from witch hazel bark, which was sold under the name "Pond's Extract." It was the first mass-marketed cosmetic actually made in America, says Byers. Extracts from the bark and leaves have been used in aftershave lotions and in lotions for treating bruises and insect bites.
Early pioneer settlers used green, flexible, witch hazel branches to locate underground water. The settlers would find a forked branch, strip off its leaves, and walk across their land holding an end of the fork in each hand. People believed that the branch would point downward where water could be found under the ground. The practice was called "water witching.'