Witch Hazel Tree
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 12/4/96

As autumn draws to a close and our forests turn shades of gray, a bewitching phenomenon occurs along the banks of Durham County's rivers and streams. Bright yellow flowers bedeck the twigs of the witch hazel tree. The sudden contrast of forest dormancy and colorful flowering, if for no other reason, accounts for the "witch'' in the common name of this local tree.

While not a tree with roots down in the river, Hamamelis virginiana often occurs further up the bank on rocky slopes and steep areas overlooking our rivers and well qualifies as a species for inclusion in my river journal. A unique plant in many ways, witch hazel has the sweet gum tree as its only close relative in our area. As a species, it is widespread across our state and occurs from maritime eastern Canada to northern Florida.

This small tree, rarely more than fifteen feet tall, probably goes unnoticed by most stream side walkers in our area. It takes a careful eye to recognize its delicate blooming in late November and early December. I look for it as nature's sign of the end of the autumn season.

This year, as I led a hiking group of Pioneer Girls and Cub Scouts at West Point on the Eno Park, we discovered the first flowering of a solitary witch hazel tree on Nov. 16. That encounter inspired me to make my annual pilgrimage to a large patch of trees located on the north-facing slope of Occoneechee Mountain near Hillsborough.

This understory species expands into a colony of trees by means of rootstocks that produce aerial stems. The Occoneechee Mountain colony has close to one hundred adult trees within a small radius. The bright yellow flowers are peculiar in form, with four petals shaped like curled ribbon on a gift wrap.

Small, dark, urn-shaped capsules encase oily, edible seeds from the previous year that are spring loaded to be ejected up to thirty feet away. The irregular, scalloped teeth along the edge of its leaf resemble that of the hazelnut tree, giving it its common name. But the two unrelated species are easily distinguishable, the witch hazel leaf having an asymmetrical base.

The second bewitching factor about this tree is its aromatic oil. Native Americans had a mystical faith in its ability to heal topical skin problems. Crushed leaves were rubbed on scratches and skin abrasions by the Cherokee and a tea was brewed from the leaves for those suffering from colds.

Early settlers from Europe were introduced to the plant by Native Americans and had high hopes for it, along with sassafras, to prove to be a panacea from the New World. It was used internally for the treatment of hemorrhaging of the lungs, bowels and the uterus and externally for hemorrhoids, varicose veins, bruises and sprains.

Extracting the oil from witch hazel is done by steam distillation of the seeds, bark and leaves. Alcohol is then added to the aromatic distillate. Modern chemistry has yet to find significant agents of healing in the oil and some think that the alcohol itself brings most of the cooling relief when applied topically. But its cleansing aroma continues to sell more than one million gallons of distillate annually. This makes it the second most widely known native botanical remedy after ginseng. It also shows up in many soaps, body lotions and shaving creams.

As a child I recall my parents using it in cotton balls on my eyes after I had stayed out too long in the sun at the beach. Its pleasant smell and cooling effect was a great comfort to my sunburned face. My mother is still a believer in witch hazel. As I write this article, she is using witch hazel to relieve her stinging eyes after an operation she had today to remove a melanoma growth on her cheek.

The above mentioned "witchy'' elements of this plant were underscored by still a third bewitching factor through misassociation with the European hazel tree. The hazel of Europe was famous for its magical properties. Witches used its branches as divining rods to search for water, gold, and other subterranean deposits. Because of its superficial resemblance to the European hazel, early colonial settlers in America used witch hazel for the same purpose. They would find a forked branch, and with fork in each hand, search for water and other minerals until the main branch pointed downward.

While the usefulness of this plant as an astringent or antiseptic agent may be limited and its divining power questionable, its beauty is not. Detouring around the conclusions of modern chemists, I rather think that the healing power of witch hazel may come from its pungent aroma arousing my psyche. While not presently sold in any aroma therapy lines that I am aware of, I can attest to its power to bewitch me with its unusual natural scent.

Here is one way I have come to enjoy witch hazel. I drop the scrapings from the bark of a small twig into a pot of boiling water on my stove and let its peculiar aroma fill my kitchen and the house. And then in late November and early December, to find its sunny flowers gracefully adorning a wintering landscape, surely stirs my imagination and wonder for our local natural areas that harbor such native botanical treasures.

Photo by Riverdave: witch hazel blossoms on Occoneechee Mountain, Hillsborough, NC