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Season of the witch (hazel)Posted Wednesday, October 19, 2011, at 4:47 PM
For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html
I asked her about it. She said it was simply an astringent wash for the skin. I knew nothing more. Then on a cool autumn day, the trees already bare of leaves, I walked in the woods behind my grandmother's house. There on a wooded hillside next to the old pond sat a small, fork-branched shrub decorated in tight clusters of spider-like yellow flowers. What's this?
Clutching a branch, I took it home. "Witch hazel," she said. I was surprised. A plant, not a potion! I had always thought of witch hazel as a clear liquid stocked in grandma's medicine cabinet. Now I had a new association for a name I had always known.
Witch hazel's name upholds mysterious connotations. In colonial America, the shrub's flexible forked branches were a favorite "witching stick" of dowsers used for searching out hidden waters. This has nothing to do with witches, but rather originates from the old English word for pliable branches "wych."
In England, dowsers call an elm (Ulmus glabra) the "witch hazel tree." When British settlers arrived in the Americas, they fancied our witch hazel as the logical replacement for dowsing chores, given its pliable, crooked branches.
Botanists deem the common witch hazel Hamamelis virginiana. The genus name, Hamamelis, combines two Greek word roots meaning fruit (apple) and "together," referring to the plant's habit of producing flowers at the same time the previous year's fruits mature and disperse seed. Since it is the season when leaves drop, the yellow flowers of witch hazel now unfurl.
The fruits are worth a mention. Witch hazel produces a hard fruit enshrining two shiny hard black seeds with white, oily, edible interiors. Savor the nutty pistachio-flavored seeds if you can get to them before the squirrels.
Witch hazel has a mechanical seed dispersal action. When mature, the seed capsules explode with a cracking pop, catapulting the seeds up to ten yards from the shrub. Remember this if you bring a bouquet of witch hazel flowering twigs indoors in autumn.
Last year's maturing seed capsules are likely on the same branch and when they heat-up in the warm confines of a home, they will explode! You may associate Halloween with pumpkins. I think of Halloween as witch hazel season.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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