Exploring The Last Green Valley: The witch of the woods has many uses

Exploring The Last Green Valley: The witch of the woods has many uses

This past month, I led a hike along the Nipmuck Trail in Ashford.

The trail winds through the Natchaug State Forest and some of the more spectacular habitat in our region.

The forest is heavily wooded with tall mature deciduous trees. We admired huge specimens of red, white and black oak, sugar and red maple and shagbark and pignut hickory.

Here and there, we came upon black birch, white ash, beech and tulip poplar, as well as groups of conifers including white pine and eastern hemlock.

To hike our region’s forests is to experience fully mature hardwoods with a tall over-story of more than 50 feet.

Walking these woodlands, I spend most of my time looking up as if admiring the inside of a huge cathedral.

Among the leviathan of the woods, the smaller shrub trees go unnoticed and all but ignored. Why admire shrubs of such slight stature when walking among giants?

It is the understory, however, where a fascinating shrub-like tree resides. Preferring the shade of its taller neighbors, this diminutive tree stands above the rest in usefulness and utility by countless people the world over.

It is this time of year, during late fall after most of the leaves have dropped from the trees, when a most unique cycle of rebirth occurs in the forest.

The woods appear drab with only grey and brown colors, when suddenly, bright yellow blooms miraculously appear.

The witch of the woods is making its lively spring-like presence known when all others are preparing for a long winter sleep.

American witch hazel is in bloom, its spicy fragrance tickling the cool fall air.

Here are some facts about American witch hazel by Larry Stritch from the U.S. Forest Service website.

– American witch hazel is a member of the witch-hazel family. The genus name Hamamelis is Latin from the Greek meaning a kind of medlar or service tree. This native grows throughout northeast and southeast North America, from Nova Scotia to Florida and from the Great Lakes to eastern Texas.

– American witch hazel is a shrub or small tree with arching branches generally growing as a dense, multi-stemmed clump reaching heights of 20 to 30 feet and widths of 15 to 20 feet, however the shrub form typically does not grow over 12 to 15 feet tall.

– This woody plant is extraordinary in its flowering pattern. The flowers are bright yellow, with four very slender creamy to bright yellow petals half- to three-quarters inch long, appearing in mid- to late-fall. The flowers are fragrant. Generally, its bright yellow flowers are the only sign of color in woods where all the autumn leaves lay upon the forest floor. American witch hazel is pollinated by a moth.

– The small, tannish to gray hard capsules go dormant throughout the winter and then develop over the next growing season. In autumn they forcibly expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet, and rarely to 40 feet. The seeds then take an additional year to germinate.

– American witch hazel possesses some interesting lore and uses. The most interesting use has been the use of forked limbs as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settlers observed Native Americans using American witch hazel to find underground sources of water. This activity is probably where the common name witch hazel came from. Wicke is the Middle English for lively and wych is from the Anglo-Saxon word for bend. American witch hazel was probably called a Wicke Hazel by early white settlers because the dowsing end of the forked branch would bend when underground water was detected by the dowser. This practice had a widespread use by American settlers and was then exported back to Europe. Dowsing became an established feature of well-digging into the 20th century.

Not mentioned in the U.S. Forest Service website is that witch hazel can be distilled into a powerful astringent that was first used as a topical healing solution by Native Americans.

In fact, more people are probably familiar with the product witch hazel found in pharmacies than the plant. I wonder how many readers have a bottle of witch hazel in their medicine cabinet right now.

One of the better known companies producing witch hazel is located here in Connecticut. T.N. Dickinson’s has been making witch hazel products since 1866 and is located in East Hampton.

Here is information from T.N. Dickinson’s website:

“T.N. Dickenson’s uses over 33,000 acres of harvest lands where witch hazel is collected using specific protocols designed to maintain the Certified Organic Wild Crop status of harvest. Most of the harvests begin in late autumn after the leaves have fallen and continue throughout the winter and early spring while the plants are dormant.”

Traditionally, witch hazel extract was made by boiling its stems and extracting the liquid. In the commercial distillery, segments of the tree are distilled in stainless steel vats, where they are steamed for around 36 hours.

A vaporized essence comes from witch hazel’s cambium layer, below its bark. The segments are scrubbed, reheated to vapor, condensed and then filtered.

To collect wood for distillation, trees were cut locally in the forests of New England. Today most wood comes from Connecticut. Some harvesters may just collect branches from a witch hazel tree, or in some cases, they harvest the tree almost entirely, leaving only a stump behind.

Witch hazel regrows from stumps very well, meaning a new tree will regrow in just a few years. This allows collectors to continue harvesting from the same area.

So the next time you’re out hiking in the Connecticut woods, remember to look for one of our region’s most amazing trees. Small in stature but mighty in uses, American witch hazel is alive and well here in The Last Green Valley.

I hope you’ll join me in exploring our beautiful region. Together we can care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.