One of the things I learned was how to identify the witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) tree. Witch-hazel is a large shrub/small tree (3-8 m) that prefers shady, moist areas with rich soil. I spotted it on a north-facing slope. According to Wikipedia, the genus name of Hamamelis supposedly means "together with fruit" since fruit, flowers, and leaf buds can be found on the plant at the same time.
The tree flowers in the fall, and the fact that there are still flowers on the tree in winter lead to witch-hazel to also being known as "winterbloom." I didn't see any flowers on the tree since it's July, just fruit, but I'll keep my eyes open later in the fall since the flowers are an unusual yellow, spidery-looking bloom that should be easy to spot now that I know what to look for.
The fruit are green, slightly-fuzzy, acorn-looking objects. They're dividing into two parts, each containing a black seed that is explosively ejected in the fall as far as 3-7 meters away from the tree. I've read that Native Americans ate the oily seeds as a snack.
Witch-hazel fruits at Lake Minnewaska State Park
From the U.S. Forest Service website, the leaves of witch-hazel are "...alternate, simple, broadly ovate, 2.5 – 6 inches long, unequal offset leaf base, with large wavy teeth on the margins and with the upper surface dark green and the lower surface a paler green."
Witch-hazel foliage at Lake Minnewaska State Park
Once I learned to identify the first one, I saw numerous witch-hazel trees on our hike - they're a lot more common that I had thought.
The plant is called witch-hazel because the leaves superficially resemble the hazel tree (Corylus americana) - source of hazelnuts - but they're not related. The "witch" part of witch-hazel is thought to be derived from the Old English wice meaning "to bend" or "to manipulate" (same for the word "wicca" often used to describe witchcraft today). The name comes from the fact that witch-hazel branches are pliable - used by Native Americans for bows - and traditionally used for "water witching" or dowsing.
The most common use of witch-hazel, however, is medicinal. The chemicals in the twigs and leaves possess an astringent quality, shrink swelling in tissues and constrict blood vessels, with numerous external uses. Witch-hazel is used on the skin for clearing up acne, stopping bleeding from razor cuts, soothing itchy insect bites or poison ivy, relieving the swelling of hemorrhoids, and shrinking bags under your eyes.
There are two traditional ways to make your own witch-hazel. Mince the twigs and either soak them in alcohol (vodka works) for a couple of weeks to make a tincture or boil the minced twigs in water for a few hours to make a decoction (the method used by Native Americans). You can also buy witch-hazel in the drugstore!
Look for this distinctive tree next time you're out hiking.