A tall shrub. Leaves. - Oval, wavy-toothed, mostly falling before the flowers appear. Flowers. - Honey-yellow, clustered, autumnal. Calyx. - Four-parted. Corolla. - Of four long narrow petals. Stamens. - Eight. Pistils. - Two. Fruit. - A capsule which bursts elastically, discharging its large seeds with vigor.
It seems as though the flowers of the witch-hazel were fairly entitled to the "booby-prize," of the vegetable world. Surely no other blossoms make their first appearance so invariably late upon the scene of action. The fringed gentian often begins to open its "meek and quiet eye" quite early in September. Certain species of golden-rod and aster continue to flower till late in the year, but they began putting forth their bright clusters before the summer was fairly over; while the elusively fragrant, pale yellow blossoms of the witch-hazel need hardly be expected till well on in September, when its leaves have fluttered earthward and its fruit has ripened. Does the pleasure which we experience at the spring-like apparition of this leafless yellow-flowered shrub in the autumn woods arise from the same depraved taste which is gratified by strawberries at Christmas, I wonder ? Or is it that in the midst of death we have a foretaste of life; a prophecy of the great yearly resurrection which even now we may anticipate?
Thoreau's tastes in such directions were certainly not depraved, and he writes: "The witch-hazel loves a hill-side with or without woods or shrubs. It is always pleasant to come upon it unexpectedly as you are threading the woods in such places. Methinks I attribute to it some elfish quality apart from its fame. I love to behold its gray speckled stems." Under another date he writes: "Heard in the night a snapping sound, and the fall of some small body on the floor from time to time. In the morning I found it was produced by the witch-hazel nuts on my desk springing open and casting their seeds quite across my chamber, hard and stony as these nuts were."
The Indians long ago discovered the value of its bark for medicinal purposes, and it is now utilized in many well-known extracts. The forked branches formerly served as divining-rods in the search for water and precious ores. This belief in its mysterious power very possibly arose from its suggestive title, which Dr. Prior says should be spelled wych-hazel, as it was called after the wych-elm, whose leaves it resembles, and which was so named because the chests termed in old times "wyches" were made of its wood His hall rofe was full of bacon flytches, The chambre charged was with wyches Full of egges, butter, and chese.*
Note. - The flowers of the American Woodbine and of the Fly Honeysuckle (p. 228), and of the Golden Corydalis (p. 192) are also yellow.
* Hazlitt's Early Popular Poetry.