Dear Readers, I was delighted to spot a witch hazel in flower in Borough Gardens in Dorchester last week. I have always been fascinated by those strange, strap-like, dishevelled petals, and the way that they stand out when everything else is still in bud. The plant itself is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family, which is now confined to eastern North America and Central America, eastern Africa and Madagascar, and the Far East, though it was much wider spread before the Ice Ages in the northern hemisphere. ‘Our’ witch hazel comes originally from China, and was collected from there by the plant hunter Charles Maries. There was (and still is) a lot of money in plants, and the Victorians in particular had a craze for species from China and Japan to complement their ‘oriental’ schemes, and to add novelty. Although not an especially showy plant, witch hazel became popular because of its winter colour and unusual flowers.
Witch hazel is not a hazel, as we have seen, but neither is it particularly linked to witches, with the ‘witch’ in the name thought to come from the Middle English word ‘wych’, meaning ‘bendable’ or ‘pliable’. In the US, where there are several native species of witch hazel, the plant is used for dowsing (the detection of underground water, minerals or other buried objects), while in the UK hazel is used. Although this practice is described as a pseudoscience, with no clear proof of its efficiency, I find it interesting that 10 of the 12 water companies in the UK still use it to find leaks, along with other methods.
Because of its winter-flowering, witch hazel is wind-pollinated (most self-respecting insects are tucked up in hibernation or pupation at this time of year). When the seedheads are ripe they explode, sending the seeds flying through the air. They can travel up to 30 feet, which is enough distance to give them a chance of germinating without being overshadowed by the parent plant, and explains the alternative name of ‘snapping hazel’.
The flowers have a most attractive scent, which is another reason for its popularity with the cognoscenti. It is also extremely frost-resistant. However, it is slow-growing, which may explain its relative expensiveness here in the UK if compared to plants like the ubiquitous forsythia. You need to be patient if you buy a small witch hazel, and rich if you want to buy a more mature one.
Witch hazel is a regular ingredient in many medicinal and cosmetic products: witch hazel water is made by boiling up the leaves, bark and roots and then distilling the result. There is a lot of tannin in witch hazel, which is why it is often used as an astringent, for drying up acne, or dissuading piles. The North American species have been used extensively by native peoples, for everything from sore throats to haemorrhage. However, it should be noted that using the bark directly can cause skin disfigurement, so best to get stuck into that distilling process. Witch hazel ointment sometimes also contains arnica, and is used for minor injuries and bruising.
It is said that those explosive seeds are edible (if you can find them before they’re catapulted into the stratosphere), and the twigs can be used as a replacement toothbrush if you find yourself in need of emergency oral hygiene.
It doesn’t surprise me that witch hazel attracted the attention of Charles Rennie Mackintosh better known as an architect and furniture designer. I love the print below, with its simple elegance. The style is said to be more indicative of Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret MacDonald, who was an art student at Glasgow School of Art when the two met. At the time that it was painted (1915), the pair were living in the village of Walberswick in Suffolk, where Mackintosh was accused of being a German spy and briefly arrested. This may have been the impetus for a later move to Port- Vendres in Southern France in 1923, a warmer, sunnier and cheaper place to live.
And to complete the post this week, here is a poem by Robert Frost. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to this poet’s work: there is a kind of down-home folksiness to it that I just don’t get (and I was once accused of not realising that the poet was trying to be funny, which was extremely embarrassing at the time). I have something of a problem also with his double-syllable rhyming scheme, which skitters along on the edge of doggerel, to my ear at least. And yet, I rather like this poem, all in all. He is talking about the American witch hazel, which flowers in the autumn, rather than the one that I saw. Indeed, if he had seen the Chinese witch hazel blossoming in mid winter he might have had to write a completely different poem.