Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Witch Hazel

As you walk in the woods during the fall and winter, you may discover a small tree with fragrant yellow blossoms. Your first thought might be that this plant has its seasons mixed up and "thinks" its spring. If you dust off your botany, though, you may recognize witch hazel, a small tree belonging to the plant family Hamamelidaceae and related to the sweet gum.

Illinois has one native species of witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, which grows in colonies in the understory of dry or moist woods. The plant seldom reaches more then 10 feet tall and can be identified by its scallop-margined leaves that turn brilliant yellow in the fall and are arranged alternatively on zigzagging branches. This allows each leaf maximum exposure to the sun filtering through its shady domain. The plant's blossoms appear after the leaves have fallen, forming yellow clusters along the branches. The flowers have four long strap-like petals, each an inch to an inch and a half long. These petals have the unique ability to curl up in a bud when the temperatures drop and unfurl in the warming sun. This adaptation protects the nectar and pollen for warmer days when insects will venture out again. Witch hazel flowers are followed by a hard, two-chambered seed capsule that ripens a year later.

Witch Hazel Blossom. (Photo by Ken Robertson, INHS Center for Biodiversity.)

Witch hazel is a plant with many common names, each related to a unique aspect of the plant. The generic name, Hamamelis, means "together with fruit," and refers to the fact that witch hazel is the only tree in the North American woods to have ripe fruit, flowers, and next year's leaf buds all on the branch at the same time. The name "snapping hazel" comes from the seedpods. As they dry and shrink, they will explode with an audible pop to scatter the seeds up to 30 feet from the parent. This mechanism for seed dispersal helps to eliminate overcrowding and increases the likelihood that this year's crop will have room to grow.

The tree has also been called water-witch. The word witch comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bend." The forked springy branches of witch hazel were used by early settlers, and later dowsers, as divining rods to search and detect underground water and minerals.

Native Americans showed pioneers how to make extracts for use as eye washes, liniment, and to stop bleeding. Modern uses include an astringent made from the tannin-rich bark, twigs, and leaves to be used on insect bites, stings, sunburn, and as a soothing after-shave lotion. In the past, even the army has used branches of witch hazel for camouflage purposes.

As you take a walk in the woods seek out the witch hazel's yellow blossoms and popping seedpods as they bring a bit of a reprieve during those gray days of fall and winter.

Susan Post, INHS Center for Economic Entomology.

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