By Dan Sardaro
February – witch hazel
Thinking back to recent Februarys, it seems like Philly always gets an unseasonably warm stretch of days that dupe many of us into thinking that winter is over. Bike tires are reinflated, windows are opened, books are read on front stoops, and parks fill up with picnickers. Even some of those winter fanatics (we all know a few) get a bit worried when that first sunny 60-degree day arrives. But that spring euphoria never lasts long – it’s quickly squandered when that infamous wintry blast follows about a week later. Sadly, we just never seem to learn our lesson.
I would call myself one of the most passionate spring enthusiasts. I love waiting for the budding greenery of March and I will admit that I get fooled every year by that late cold snap. Just in time to comfort those like me who are always looking forward to warmer days, February’s tree of the month acts as a colorful beacon amidst the last remnants of winter.
The American Witch Hazel & Relatives
Witch hazel (part of the genus Hamamelis and Hamamelidaceae family) is February’s tree of the month. This plant family encompasses many species across the globe, but in the U.S., the common American witch hazel usually comes in the form of shrubs or small trees that provide vibrant color from mid-Fall to early spring.
American witch hazel – Hamamelis virginiana, referencing its Virginian roots – is the common species, indigenous to the U.S., and grows throughout Nova Scotia to Florida and from the Great Lakes to eastern Texas. It typically can be found growing in dense, multi-stemmed clumps that can reach heights of 20-30 feet and widths of 15-20 feet.
Witch hazel flowers, which are its defining attribute, are some of nature’s finest. Bright yellow with four slim petals ½ to ¾ inch long, these tiny blooms can be seen from October until March, depending on the species. Witch hazel provides an otherwise bleak forest or garden with pops of color.
Find the Chinese (H. mollis) and Japanese (H. japonica) relatives and you get flowers with even more striking colors. Horticulturists have bred these two species to create prized selections, ones that are very popular with American gardeners. Two other North American species, the vernal or Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) and the big-leaf witch hazel (H. ovalis) also thrive in the U.S. but are not as common in this area as H. virginiana.
Uses & Lore
While witch hazel is a scenic small tree, it’s not just a colorful element to a garden. You might be familiar with witch hazel in the grocery store; the shrub has an intrinsic ability to act as an astringent which can be used to tighten pores in your skin and remove oil. If you are familiar with the astringent’s smell, you can pick up the same scent typically just by walking by a blossoming grove. However, even before the plant’s liquid essence was sold in plastic bottles, this plant had even more unique lore.
In the colonial days, early settlers observed Native Americans using the shrub as a divining rod (a tool used to dowse, or the technique used to locate underground water sources). The dowsing end of the forked witch hazel branch would bend downward when you stood over a supposed water source.
While it sounds supernatural, this well-digging method was widely used by many American settlers and then exported back to Europe where it became established practice until the 20th century. This is also most likely how the plant got its name. “Wicke” is Middle English for “lively” and “wych” stems from the Anglo-Saxon word “bend,” which resulted in the settlers calling it wicke hazel.
Where to Find It?
Awbury Arboretum’s grounds hold one of the best-hidden gems to find witch hazel any time of year. In 2015, “while cutting through the tangle of well-established honeysuckle, Awbury’s landscape manager began to catch the strong, distinctive scent of our native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. After steady clearing, they uncovered five original witch hazels installed in the early 1900s.”
In this spot today stands the Scattergood Witch Hazel Memorial in the meadow above the pond. Named after married Awbury residents Henry and Sally Scattergood, two influential Quakers who helped preserve Awbury’s history for practically all their lives, this space is a perfect place to visit all year round. There, you can find many types of witch hazels, both native and non-native, young and old. The oldest specimens there date back to the early 20th century when the Scattergood family first planted a Hamamelis virginiana. Now, you can find newer ornamental varieties in colors of purple, orange, red, and yellow.