November 2022: Witch Hazel—A native plant with deep roots in Connecticut’s history
Witch hazel’s history in Connecticut
- Witch hazel growing in the woods is a sign of little historical disturbance.
- The Mohegans are thought to have taught early settlers to use witch hazel branches as dowsing sticks to find underground springs.
- Witch hazel extract is one of the only medicinal plants approved by the FDA as a nonprescription drug. Its volatile oils and tannins in the bark and leaves are astringent and anti-inflammatory.
- Some claim that witch hazel extracts also confer occult powers on the user.
- E.E. Dickinson & Co. operated a witch hazel processing plant in Essex, Connecticut, in the 19th century. The company is now part of American Distilling. Nearly all of the witch hazel lotion in the world is still made in East Hampton, Connecticut.
- In the late 1800s and early 1900s, E.E. Dickinson paid local residents to harvest witch hazel. Jim Arrigoni,a conservation biologist with Connecticut Audubon, said, “My great-grandfather and his family harvested it for E.E. Dickinson Co. on land near Mt. Pisgah in Durham, where they also made charcoal in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It remains abundant in the forest understory there.”
- Other Connecticut towns with connections to the witch hazel industry include Lyme, Guilford, Middletown, Winthrop, and Higganum.
- Edwin Way Teale, whose widow Nellie donated their land, named Trail Wood, to Connecticut Audubon in 1981, wrote an interesting account of local witch hazel collection and processing in his 1966 travelog Wandering Through Winter.
Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds, by Richard M. DeGraaf, University Press of New England, 2002
Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965
“The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel”, by John-Manuel Andriote, The Atlantic, Nov. 6, 2012 (theatlantic.com)
“Northern Bobwhite,” Wildlife in Connecticut Fact Sheet, portal.ct.gov
“Witch Hazel – Connecticut’s Wonder Shrub,” by Mary M. Donohue, Connecticut Explored, Spring 2007 (ctexplored.org)
Brooklyn Botanic Garden (bbg.org)
Missouri Botanical Garden (missouribotanicalgarden.org)
Native Plant Trust Go Botany (gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org)
Natural Resources Conservation Service (nrcs.usda.gov)
North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (plants.ces.ncsu.edu)
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (adminplants.sc.egov.usda.gov)
University of Georgia Extension (extension.uga.edu)
Homegrown Habitat provides advice on what and where to plant, one per month, written by Sarah W. Middeleer, a landscape designer whose work focuses on ecology and designing for wildlife. Sarah serves as vice chair of the Connecticut Audubon Board of Directors. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
November 17, 2022 — Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is, in the words of Edwin Way Teale, “a botanical individualist.” As I researched this remarkable plant, I couldn’t agree more. I would add that its individuality extends to historical and cultural realms as well.
This large deciduous shrub is the last plant to come into bloom each year in the Northeast; its Y-shaped branches have been used as divining rods to discover underground water; it has played a fascinating role in Connecticut’s industrial history; and its extract has been hailed for hundreds of years as a balm for irritated skin, among other maladies, and continues to be used in cosmetics and personal care products to this day.
Witch hazel grows slowly to a height and width of 15-20 feet. It is happy under the canopy of forest trees, where its zig-zag limbs reach gracefully to where sunlight can touch them. When grown in full sun witch hazel assumes a tighter—yet still very attractive—vase-shaped form.
The large, oval, velvety leaves with scalloped edges are blue-green in summer and gold in the fall.
The fragrant, lemon-yellow flowers (sometimes tinged with orange or red) have four or five ribbon-like petals that appear in late fall and winter after the leaves have fallen, sprinkling a bit of cheer into the darkening winter landscape. Flower fertilization occurs 5-7 months after the flowers form.
The seeds of common witch hazel form in woody, hairy capsules that wait until the following year to open. When conditions are dry enough, the capsules explosively eject two seeds as far as 30 feet away. (If you collect witch hazel branches to bring inside in winter, this will happen in your house!) Two years later, if still undiscovered by hungry wildlife, the seeds will germinate.
Enjoying witch hazel seeds, when they can find them, are Northern Cardinal, Wild Turkey, Ruffed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasant, beaver, cottontail rabbit, deer, and even bear. People can eat them too. But because of the unusual reproductive schedule of common witch hazel, not a lot of fruit is produced.
Yet its late flowers do attract certain species of flies, bees, gnats, and even some extremely cold-tolerant moths (Eupsilia spp.). These insects may attract songbirds such as kinglets, chickadees, and titmice at a time when such winged protein is hard to find.
Witch hazel also serves as a host plant for several moths (including the endangered Acronicta hamamelis), whose larvae provide a nourishing food source to songbird nestlings in the spring.
Consider planting a common witch hazel — or two or three — in your yard.
If you have room, consider converting part of your lawn to meadow, and edge it with bird-friendly thickets of common witch hazel, and/or blueberry, winterberry, American hazlenut, bayberry, etc. — and see who comes to visit.
Common witch hazel will grow in a variety of conditions, from moist to dry, and shaded to sunny. It prefers acidic, organically rich soil but in the wild will sometimes grow on rocky talus slopes.
Some authors report that full sun will stress the shrub, so in this condition make sure it has adequate moisture. Flowers will be more plentiful in full sun.
Witch hazel is said to be deer resistant, due no doubt to its pungent tannins — but deer may browse new growth, especially on young, fertilized plants fresh from a nursery.
Appropriate landscape uses range from specimen planting to screening (plant several in a hedgerow), woodland settings, pond and stream banks, and gardens devoted to medicinal plants, winter interest, or pollinators.
If you have questions or observations about witch hazel or the other native plants I’ve written about, please email me: email@example.com.
Let’s keep the community growing and the number of bird-friendly plants in our yards and towns expanding exponentially!