Plant Lore: Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)


Image by Holcy courtesy of iStock

Witch hazel: The name alone evokes everything from a spooky, magical potion to your facial astringent. But it’s for completely different reasons that this small, deciduous tree was given this common name. Native to the woodlands of eastern North America, Hamamelis virginiana is somewhat understated in appearance with an open, shrubby, and outward-growing habit and sometimes subtle, spider-like yellow flowers that appear directly off the branch in late autumn.

A gentleman using a dowsing rod. Image courtesy Louisiana State University library archives

Early settlers found — and some sources say that Native Americans showed them — that the branches of the witch hazel were especially well-suited to finding water. By slowing fanning a Y-shaped branch over the ground, the branch-holder could tell if there was water underneath when he or she felt the branch pull. The practice, known as dowsing, is still alive and well today, albeit more typically carried out with metal dowsing or divining rods. Because of the witch hazel's use in dowsing, it began to be called wice — an Old English general descriptor for pliable branches — or wican, meaning “to bend.” The hazel portion of the name derives from the Old English hæsel which was a general name given to any shrub in the pine family.