I’m not the superstitious type. But no sooner had I finished reading an enchanting article on witch hazel when my beekeeping buddy, avid roof-top gardener and ace cat photographer, Nikki Vane, tweeted an image of her own livid-red witch hazel, seemingly spidering across a canvas of paving-stones. A mere happenstance, of course.
But enough to put a bee in my bonnet. So I set out to discover a little more about this eerily-named shrub. Witch hazel is a leggy, deciduous plant with 5 distinct varieties (3 U.S., 1 Chinese, 1 Japanese). Its hermaphrodite flowers materialise in winter for the delight and delectation of early foraging bees. And although its name summons up visions of cackling pointy-hats waving magic wands, a simple wiki-search unearths the banal linguistic root of “witch“. Which is “wiche” (#spellcheck). “Wiche” meant “pliable” and referenced the use of the witch hazel’s bendy forked twigs as dowsing rods. Folklore has it that the early American settlers noted that this new-world shrub shared these properties with the home-spun hazel. By a happy hex, language rendered “wiche hazel” as an amalgam of these two.
Witch hazel’s most common manifestation in this country is on rootstock from the hardy Hamamelis virginiana, native to the northestern United States. This variety was introduced into English gardens in the 1730s by Peter Collinson, who maintained a botanist’s garden at Ridgeway House, Mill Hill. By an otherworldly coincidence, Ridgeway is now part of Mill Hill School. I know it well. It is my old school.
Now, had I been paying attention to the botanic traditions of Collison and Buckland at Mill Hill, or indeed to OJ Wait’s Greek class, I might perhaps have been aware that the formal classification of witch hazel, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”.
However, to my mind, “together with fruit” sounds more like the strap-line of the dating agency which introduced Adam to Eve. But in reality it describes a little hocus-pocus which sets the witch hazel apart from other shrubs. Unlike other plants, the witch hazel juggles flowers and fruit at the same time. Since its fruits take a whole year to ripen, last year’s setting seed pods rub shoulders with the newly-hatched flowers.
And there’s a final flourish in the witch hazel’s repertoire: as the seed-case withers, it contracts and squeezes the pips. Suddenly, the pod cannonballs a pair of glossy back seeds up to 10 feet away. In my book, that’s a pretty extrovert party-trick for shrubbery!
For an encore, witch hazel’s smooth grey bark and its leaves can be boiled down (I’m guessing that a cauldron is optional) to an astringent, anti-oxidant balm. Spare a round of applause for the indigenous alchemy of the Mohicans, who spirited up this concoction as a medicine for insect bites, skin irritations, headaches, sore muscles and bruises. But, with its name up in lights, the star of the show is the hermaphrodite, colour-bright, fragrant, vagrant, winter-flowering, water-divining, medicating, detonating witch-hazel.
Which takes us back to where we started: that article on witch hazel. I hope that you, too, will be enchanted by this mystical and starkly beautiful shrub. Take a bow, witch hazel.