Today’s entry is not about the crazed cartoon sorceress from Warner Bros. cartoons (voiced by the inimitable June Foray), but instead we’ll be looking at the remarkable fall-blooming witch hazel tree. Really, the Hamamelis virginiana is not exactly a tree, but a woody shrub which can be found growing near water sources or in forest undergrowth throughout the Eastern United States (as well as in parts of Europe). It bears gorgeous yellow flowers in fall which look almost like a deep yellow honeysuckle bloom or a spidery golden star. It has a number of medical applications (you can usually find an astringent extract of the same name in your pharmacy), and has been used as a tea, poultice, extract, and tincture to treat bleeding wounds for a long time, according to botanical.com. The handy little book Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia names witch hazel as a topical treatment for hemorrhoids and sunburn, and mentions it as an infusion for treating menstrual discomfort.
But you’re probably not here for the medical qualities of the plant (although I should quickly make my regular disclaimer that nothing herein contained is intended as medical/legal advice and you should see professional guidance when using any herb, plant, or botanical). So let’s look at the folklore surrounding this plant.
The name is a good jumping-off point. Wikipedia (forgive me, please) indicates that the appellation of “witch” to this plant is related to an Old English word meaning “bendable” or “pliant,” due to witch hazel’s extremely flexible branches. It also tangentially relates it to its folkloric use as a dowsing tool. Since being able to dowse for water or other hidden substances is often referred to as “witching” for such things, connecting the tree name to its application makes some sense. Essentially this could be a chicken-and-egg argument about which idea came first, so I’ll just leave the question hovering in the ether for you to contemplate.
Since we’re mentioning witch hazel’s connection to dowsing, let’s look at one method of using it in this way, from Vance Randolph’s Ozark Magic & Folklore:
“Well, I just cut me a green fork off a peach tree some fellows use witch hazel or redbud, but peach always works better for me and take one prong in each hand. Then I walk slowly back and forth, holding the fork in front of me, parallel with the ground. When I cross an underground stream the witch stick turns in my hands, so that the main stem points down toward the water. Then I drive a stake in the ground to mark the place, and that’s where I tell ’em to dig their well” (p.83)
In this example, the informant shows a preference to peach branches over witch hazel (which I found in several other sources as well, particularly those focused on the American Southeast). Another informant of Randolph’s, one Mr. A.M. Haswell of Joplin, Missouri, espouses a staunch preference for witch hazel. Regardless of the tree, the technique remains the same. This account does not mention the holding method, which usually involves a palms-up grip, with the thumbs pointing out and away from the body. The stick ‘turning’ is a violent bobbing action, and truly accomplished dowsers can count the bobs to indicate approximately how deep the well is (thirty bobs equals thirty feet, for example).
Witch hazel can be used for other magical applications, too. A technique which seems—to me, anyway—related to its pharmaceutical properties involves using hazel branches to cure warts, scars, or blemishes. The patient takes a hazel stick, cuts three notches into it, applies some blood from the afflicted body part, and casts it into running water (Folklore of Adams County, Hyatt). One version of this method recorded in Folk Medicine by William Black involves writing one’s name on the branch and filling those grooves with blood.
The plant can also be used in protection magic. Randolph mentions that Ozark hillfolk would tie hazel twigs into little crosses and hung on their walls to guard against disease, especially in barns to safeguard the animals (p.284). This is somewhat like the rowan tree charm, which involves crosses of rowan twigs bound by red thread used as protective aids.
So as you are out on your autumn evening walks, keep an eye out for this gorgeous and rather useful magical plant. Try your hand at dowsing, or just make some healing or protective charms. But make friends with the poor, sweet witch hazel. She gets awfully lonely, and we don’t want her out hunting wabbits, do we?