WITCH-HAZEL FAMILY - Hamamelidaceae: Witch-hazel

Hamamelis virginiana

Flowers--Yellow, fringy, clustered in the axils of branches. Calyx 4-parted; 4 very narrow curving petals about 3/4 in. long; 4 short stamens, also 4 that are scale-like; 2 styles. Stem: A tall, crooked shrub. Leaves: Broadly oval, thick, wavy-toothed, mostly fallen at flowering time. Fruit: Woody capsules maturing the next season and remaining with flowers of the succeeding year (Hama = together with; mela = fruit).

The literature of Europe is filled with allusions to the witch-hazel, which, however, is quite distinct from our shrub. Swift wrote:

  "They tell us something strange and odd
  About a certain magic rod
  That, bending down its top divines
  Where'er the soil has hidden mines;
  Where there are none, it stands erect
  Scorning to show the least respect."

A good story is told on Linnaeus in Baring-Gould's "Curious Myths of the Middle Ages": "When the great botanist was on one of his voyages, hearing his secretary highly extol the virtues of his divining-wand, he was willing to convince him of its insufficiency, and for that purpose concealed a purse of one hundred ducats under a ranunculus, which grew by itself in a meadow, and bid the secretary find it if he could. The wand discovered nothing, and Linnaeus's mark was soon trampled down by the company present, so that when he went to finish the experiment by fetching the gold himself, he was utterly at a loss where to find it. The man with the wand assisted him, and informed him that it could not lie in the way they were going, but quite the contrary; so they pursued the direction of the wand, and actually dug out the gold. Linnaeus said that another such experiment would be sufficient to make a proselyte of him."

Many a well has been dug even in this land of liberty where our witch-hazel indicated; but here its kindly magic is directed chiefly through the soothing extract distilled from its juices. Its yellow, thread-like blossoms are the latest to appear in the autumn woods.