By Barbara Walvoord
Isn’t the blooming season past? Nope. One native shrub (or small tree) is just now blooming–witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
On the east campus, walk along the woods edge next to Basset Brook road, between the Inn and Mulberry Lane. Among the trees, you’ll see a beautiful yellow haze of delicate blossoms, each with multiple thin, ribbon-like petals.
“Witch hazel” is a recycled name, given long ago to a different species of tree in England, and reused by colonists for the tree they found here.
“Witch hazel” is also an ancient name, probably from the Old English wice, meaning weak or pliant, as indeed these branches are.
It’s a magical name, too, intimating witch-like powers, both as a medicine and as a divining rod for locating water. Blooming at Halloween, after several hard frosts, is magical by itself.
Both colonists and Native Americans used witch hazel as a medicine, and CVS still sells it. The factual, decidedly non-magical website “Web MD” allows there is evidence of witch hazel’s effectiveness for soothing hemorrhoids, minor bleeding, and skin irritations, but no evidence yet for some other ancient claims, such as curing TB, colds, fever, diarrhea, or vomiting blood.
But that’s the human view. For several species of butterflies and moths, witch hazel is a place to lay your eggs. For newly-hatched larvae, it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like most butterfly and moth larvae, these eat only one kind of native plant. Thus our witch hazel is a critical part of the food chains that support our native environment.
Witch hazel works hard to remain part of our environment. Its seeds are encased in woody pods that, at the time of the first frost, break apart explosively with a loud pop and spew seeds as far as 30 feet. You might appreciate this feat if you think back to your childhood contests to see who could spit a watermelon seed the farthest.