The witchhazel is easy to identify. Barely exceeding the classification of “shrub,” it does not usually top 4.5 m (15') in height. Although one exceptional tree in Bedford, VA was found to be 10.5 m (35 ft) tall with a trunk nearly half a meter in diameter, these trees are usually content to spread laterally in the understory. They absorb any light that escapes the canopy trees with their crooked, asymmetrical branches, which form a spreading, irregular crown. Witchhazel leaves are also distinctive; 7.6-15.2 cm (3-6") long, they are broadly elliptical and edged with rounded teeth or lobes. The leaves tend to be much larger in the northern part of its range.
In the late fall, as the leaves are turning gold and falling, the witchhazel flowers open. Very unusual in appearance, they have four crumpled-looking, strap-like yellow petals and release a delicate fragrance. The flowers remain open for much of the winter, and the fruits do not ripen and split open until the following fall, as the next year’s flowers are appearing. When the light brown capsules containing the seeds are ripe, the capsule will contract, ejecting the seeds by force to distances of 9 m (29.5') from the tree. (Left: immature seed capsules.)
Witchhazel has an extensive folk history. Native Americans on the east coast were known to use it as a cold remedy, eye medicine, and kidney aid, to name a few. Early settlers used a tea made of the leaves for various medicinal purposes. They also employed forked witchhazel branches as divining rods to find underground water. Settlers would engage in “water-witching” (leading to the common name, witchhazel) by holding a forked or bent witchhazel branch as they walked over the ground they wished to survey for underground water. If the branch twisted, inclined, or dipped, it was believed to have located water. This practice (also called dowsing) has been employed ever since the 1400s in Germany, where it was first used to “find” precious metals underground. Scattered incidents in its history include its use in France in the 1600s to track criminals and heretics, and again by United States Marines during the Vietnam War to attempt to locate hidden underground tunnels and weapons. Although they did not use witchhazel branches for those attempts, it is interesting that this New-World tree has been adopted, and, indeed, named, for an Old-World superstition. Although studies have proved that dowsing does not, in fact, locate the object of the search more often than chance would indicate, it is still used today in some areas and many practitioners claim very high success rates.
Witchhazel extracts, derived from the leaves and bark, are used today in cosmetics, lotions, ointments, and soaps. The extract is also used to soothe insect bites, burns, and poison ivy rashes. It has mildly astringent properties and pleasant smell.
H. virginiana can be found in moist woods throughout the eastern US, from Florida extending into Canada. Strangely, several disjunct populations can also be found in central Texas and southern Missouri. This specimen was collected near the pumphouse; one can see the immature fruits ripening along the branch.