Updated: 12/11/19 – 1:33P.M.
VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — Witch Hazel is a small tree with multiple smooth trunks and flowers that look otherworldly, burgundy* with yellow petals bursting out that look like crinkled yellow ribbons.
As trees shed their leaves in the fall the flowers bloom, from October to December. It’s easy to catch a fleck of yellow, especially after a snowfall. It’s likely the only flower you’ll find.
It’s a scarce time for pollinators and witch hazel extends the season for them. The flowers have a spicy aroma and attract bees and small flies.
Pollinated flowers go dormant throughout the winter.
“It sort of suspends itself over the course of the winter and then the fruits develop over the following growing season,” said Daniel Waldhorn of the New York Department of Conservation. “But the mechanism by which it releases seeds is kind of interesting because it has these woody fruits that dry up, and, as they dry up, it sort of hits some critical threshold and it pops open and can shoot the seeds up to 25 feet away.”
Waldhorn called it a biological catapult.
Witch hazel has been used by native people for medicinal purposes, and is used in facial products as a natural astringent.
It was also used in the 18th century practice of dowsing, a folk magic meant to locate water. The name witch hazel actually comes from the Old English word ‘wych’, meaning bend. “Which referred to the rod allegedly bending to indicate a source of water,” Waldhorn explained.
Witch hazel is fairly common. It grows in the woods, especially near streams, and you can likely find it on a hike.
*Clarifies that some varieties have the burgundy center, but a yellow center is more common.