Friday, November 12, 2010

Witch Hazel

One of the more interesting shrubs of the Captina watershed is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  The name witch hazel is somewhat of a misnomer because the plant is not a hazel, nor is it associated with witches in folklore.  Its fruit and leaves are very similar to the American hazelnut in appearance and the "witch" is derived from an old English word for pliable branches.  In colonial times dowsers would use witch hazel branches to search out hidden sources of water, hence their nickname "water witch".  There are several chemical extracts in the bark having medicinal qualities leading to its widespread use among native Americans and European colonists to treat ailments such as diarrhea, inflammation and bleeding. Witch hazel is noted as the only shrub in the watershed that blooms in late autumn after the growing season has ended for most plants. 

Witch hazels are understory resdients of the tree
canopy growing to heights of 20 feet or less.  This
shrub has taken root under a large red oak canopy.
The most common place to find witch hazel is under-
neath large dark oak tree stands in upland wooded
ravines with rich soils.  Note the tiny yellow flowers
on the banches. 

The bark of the witch hazel trunk, about 4 inches in diameter.

Witch hazel branches.  Note the crooked forks - similar
to spicebush but a much larger shrub and more flexible branches. 

The witch hazel flower.  Only measuring an inch or so across these
flowers are the only ones in this forest tract meaning they will get the
full attention of pollenating insects.  Two honeybees were visiting
nearby flowers when this photo was taken.

The witch hazel fruit.  Tiny black seeds are contained inside a
a brownish capsule.  These seeds have matured from last year's
flowers.  Witch hazel is the only shrub that has both seeds and
flowers intact at the same time.  The seeds are dispersed mech-
anically.  When the capsule dries it bursts open with a
popping sound propelling them several feet in the air. 

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