Which hazel is it?

Although it doesn’t have the showiest flower, witch hazel has the very unusual characteristic of blooming in late fall, at the same time that seeds from the previous year are released.

If a witch hazel were a hazel, which hazel would it be? Well, none of them, actually. Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a large native shrub which in fact has nothing to do with hazelnut shrubs (Corylus species in the birch family) nor, as far as we know, witches. But we’ll get back to names in a moment.

What is perhaps even more interesting about this plant is its timing or natural cycle. This large, multi-stemmed shrub flowers in late fall, when most trees are dropping their leaves. Most plants finished flowering long ago, hopefully providing enough time for their flowers to get pollinated and for seeds to form and mature before winter sets in. How can a plant that blooms in October have time for all that? Although witch hazel blooms when temperatures are often quite cool, there are still enough insects around to pollinate it. Then the plant literally halts the process, holding the pollen over the winter so that fertilization can occur in spring. The fruit then grows throughout the summer, finally maturing at the same time the plant is flowering. The fruit itself is also interesting. It is basically a capsule that contains two shiny black seeds. The capsule explodes open, catapulting the seeds up to 10 meters away.

Now, back to the name. Hamamelis comes from two Greek words meaning “fruit” and “together,” which refers to the characteristic of fruiting and blooming at the same time. The common name of hazel likely comes from the fact that the leaves closely resemble those of the hazelnut tree. “Witch” is probably not a reference to Halloween, but more likely a derivation of the Middle English word “wiche,” meaning “bendable,” in reference to the pliant twigs.

As if the biology of this plant weren’t cool enough, witch hazel also has important medicinal uses. Extracts from the bark and leaves are astringent, used, among other things, for treating bruises and insect bites and in hemorrhoid and acne treatments. In addition, the seeds are edible, with a nutty flavor.

According to one source, witch hazel is one of the few native medicinal plants approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non-prescription drug ingredient. The plant, however, is listed as being of special concern in Minnesota, and may be elevated to threatened as invasive plant species and loss of habitat threaten its persistence.

Your best chance of seeing witch hazel in Minnesota is to go to forested areas in the southeastern corner of the state, which is the northwestern extent of its range. The shrub has also been found in Chisago County. Some nurseries sell witch hazel, as well, so it can also be found in some landscape plantings.

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— Karen Schik, Ecologist & Project Manager