Winter weather brings out the best in the hardy, humble witch-hazel
"I cherish a witch-hazel kind of day, a scrap of color, a light in the window when winter is closing all around."
-- Robin Wall Kimmerer
Tis the season for Christmas trees to sprout from parking lots, destined to bear the burden of holiday bling. There's a humble tree in our flora that, unlike the Christmas conifers, grows its own holiday ornaments. The witch-hazel, whose legends and lore rival any evergreen's, bears beautiful, star-shaped flowers this time of year.
When the first brisk winds of November denude the other deciduous trees in the woods, northern witch-hazel's flower buds appear. Come Thanksgiving, magnificent yellow petals unfold. When people start hanging shiny ornaments and tinsel on their Christmas trees, the witch-hazel is in full bloom in the woods.
Witch-hazel flowers sport four tiny, yellow, strap-like petals. They're unobtrusive in a season of excess gaudiness. While they may not attract much human attention, the faintly fragrant blossoms have sticky pollen, attracting insect pollinators.
Insects in December? As we spend more time indoors, we miss things like insects, which are still out and about in the brisk air of early winter. Botanist John Hilty of the University of Illinois reported that "the nectar and pollen of (witch-hazel) flowers attract ... Syrphid flies, Tachinid flies, Blow flies, Muscid flies, and many others. Less common visitors of the flowers include ... beetles and parasitic wasps."
Bernd Heinrich, one of my favorite naturalist-scientist heroes, observed another group of pollinators visiting witch-hazels: nocturnal owlet moths. Heinrich discovered that these small moths are able to produce their own heat, increasing their internal thermometer up to 50 degrees. Not a bad trick if you want to avoid summer competition and feed in winter instead. Being nocturnal helps, too.
Ever since reading about these nighttime winter pollinators, I have hoped to find one on a witch-hazel flower. It has become a quest. I frequently go out into my woods at night armed, with my UV flashlight, and peer at the flowers.
The black light reveals a whole world of amazing things in and around trees, but no nocturnal visitors to the witch-hazel flowers so far. I will not give up.
The purpose of flowers, of course, is to produce fruit, and the purpose of fruit is to disseminate seeds. After pollination, witch-hazel flowers turn into hard, gray capsules containing seeds. They remain dormant throughout winter, spring, and summer.
Come fall, these capsules explode, ejecting the seeds as far as 25 feet from the shrub.
The capsules, I'm told, make a little "bang!" when they detonate. (This is called explosive dehiscence, an onomatopoeic term which rolls off the tongue.) My next challenge is to station myself by the witch-hazel and hear the sound of tiny cannons.
As for folklore? There's a trove of stories about witch-hazel. "Diviners," or "water witches," used forked branches of the witch-hazel to search for water sources. The practice is called divination, or dowsing, and witch-hazel branches were called dowsing sticks.
It's likely that European settlers picked up this practice from Native Americans. (As much as I love witch-hazel, I would rely on the Illinois Geologic Survey with questions about my well!)
Indigenous people employed witch-hazel for a variety of medicinal reasons. Potawatomi Indians, for example, burned witch-hazel twigs to create healing steam in sweat baths. Old herbals provide instructions for making poultices of witch-hazel to apply to swellings and insect bites, tea for digestive ailments, and ointments for the skin.
You can still find witch-hazel ointment on the shelves of some pharmacies. As one elderly woman in Kentucky said, "There ain't hardly no hurt the woods don't have medicine for," plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer relayed in her book "Braiding Sweetgrass."
With all of these qualities, witch-hazel is a wonderful native tree year-round. But when the nights get long and the snow starts to fall, the real miracle of witch-hazel unfolds.
Evergreens are nice in living rooms at Christmastime, but the truly divine tree is the witch-hazel in the cold, winter woods.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist in Kane County. You may contact her at email@example.com.