This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
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).
Preferred Habitat - Moist woods or thickets near streams. Flowering Season - August - December.
Distribution - Nova Scotia and Minnesota, southward to the Gulf States.
To find a stray apple blossom among the fruit in autumn, or an occasional violet deceived by caressing Indian Summer into thinking another spring has come, surprises no one; but when the witch-hazel bursts into bloom for the first time in November, as if it were April, its leafless twigs conspicuous in the gray woods with their clusters of spidery pale yellow flowers, we cannot but wonder with Edward Rowland Sill:
"Has time grown sleepy at his post And let the exiled Summer back? Or is it her regretful ghost,
Or witchcraft of the almanac? "
Not to the blue gentian but to the witch-hazel should Bryant have addressed at least the first stanza of his familiar lines (p. 33). The shrub doubtless gives the small bees and flies their last feast of the season in consideration of their services in transferring pollen from the staminate to the fertile flowers. Very slowly through the succeeding year the seeds within the woody capsules mature until, by the following autumn, when fresh flowers appear, they are ready to bombard the neighborhood after the violets' method, in the hope of landing in moist yielding soil far from the parent shrub to found a new colony. Just as a watermelon seed shoots from between the thumb and forefinger pinching it, so the large, bony, shining black, white-tipped witch-hazel seeds are discharged through the elastic rupture of their capsule whose walls pinch them out. To be suddenly hit in the face by such a missile brings no smile while the sting lasts. Witch-hazel twigs ripening indoors transform a peaceful living room into a defenceless target for light artillery practice.
Nowhere more than in the naming of wild flowers can we trace the home-sickness of the early English colonists in America. Any plant even remotely resembling one they had known at home was given the dear familiar name. Now our witch-hazel, named for an English hazel tree of elm lineage, has similar leaves it is true, but likeness stops there; nevertheless, all the folk-lore clustered about that mystic tree has been imported here with the title. By the help of the hazel's divining-rod the location of hidden springs of water, precious ore, treasure, and thieves may be revealed, according to old superstition. Cornish miners, who live in a land so plentifully stored with tin and copper lodes they can have had little difficulty in locating seams of ore with or without a hazel rod, scarcely ever sink a shaft except by its direction.
The literature of Europe is filled with allusions to it. 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.