Hamamelis spp. – Witch hazel (Fam. Hamamelidaceae)
This year, with the cold weather we had, I got lucky and catch the Witch hazels flowering in the polyhouse at Lost Horizons – Surprise! They usually flower in very early spring, which in Ontario means from late February to March, depending on the year. The bare branches become covered in clusters of ribbon-like, fragrant flowers at a time when nothing else dares to flower (except the Hellebores). The savvy linguists are saying that their name comes from the Old English word ‘wyche’ meaning ‘pliant’, because the twigs bend easily, and hazel, because although not related, they resemble the hazel shrub (Corylus – Fam. Betulaceae).
But there must be something ‘witchy’ about them and actually it seems that the ritual of locating underground water using a hazel branch (dowsing), used extensively during the Middle Ages in Europe, was adapted by North American settlers using a witch hazel twig instead of hazel. The ritual was also known as ‘water witching’ and the twig used was named ‘witching rod’. Maybe this explains better why we call them witch hazels. Last year we had almost started the divination around the nursery, but in the end just having them was magical enough and there was no need to look for the underground water after all. So, although botanically speaking they have nothing in common with the hazels (Corylus) it seems that based on their magical properties we can place them all in the extensive family of: Magic Shrubs & Trees.
Although there are also very good garden varieties of Hamamelis vernalis, Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis japonica, most new introductions are from a group of hybrids between H. japonica x H. mollis, named Hamamelis x intermedia, with intermediate characters between the parents. They have so many qualities that I don’t even know where to start – first, maybe the size, perfectly suited for small spaces, with an architectural branching; second, the time of blooming – very early in the spring; third, the perfect display of the colorful flower clusters on the branches, the fragrance, and least but not last, the fall color: brilliant red, orange, yellow or a combination of all, depending on the variety. Almost never bothered by pests and insects…. Did we almost found the ‘perfect’ small tree ?
Among all the witch hazels, the North American native Hamamelis virginiana, has a peculiar flowering – in late October-November, so if hiking around you find a small tree with small, spidery yellow flowers in November – you can play botanist and ID it on the spot, ‘cause there is nothing else flowering at that time of year.
Image – as soon as I find the images with H. virginiana from this fall
Note: Witch hazel has been used for centuries to treat skin ailments because the leaves, bark and twigs are high in tannins. It is still a common ingredient in soaps, face washes and shampoos and some medicinal preparations.