Friday, July 30, 2010


I realize this blog is called Hudson Valley Geologist and I've been posting a lot of biological stuff lately but that's what has been interesting to me as I'm out hiking.  On Thursday, I went with my family to a nature program for kids at Lake Minnewaska State Park and I learned a few new things as well on the nature hike (I never got to do cool stuff like that as a kid so I make up for it now as an adult by participating in the kid's programs!).

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.


  1. OMG! Thank you!!!!!!!!! I could not for the life of me find out what this glorious tree is in my back yard, sitting amongst some large rock outcroppings that I am landscaping naturally around.

    I LOVE IT. This is it... could not find it for days. Even my landscaper was stumped!

  2. We have these witch hazel trees growing all over the woods here in Rhode Island. We also keep a bottle in the medicine cabinet. It really works.
    Now what can you tell us about the Spice Bush?

  3. You are awesome! Thanks for posting about this tree! Keep doing what you love :)