Witches in Winter

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

There are three species of Hamamelis a.k.a. Witch-hazel in the United States.  All three species occur in East Texas, and today I present two of them.  Witch-hazel was an important plant for native cultures and settlers, both for its wide range of uses and associated folklore.

Witch-hazels contain a variety of medicinal compounds.  Native Americans used witch-hazel extract to treat skin conditions, swelling, inflammation, burns, insect bites, poison ivy, stomach issues, colds, and more.  Early settlers adopted these uses, and with-hazel extract is still used today for a multitude of skin products including aftershave.

Witch-hazel twigs were also frequently used for “witching for water”.  Also known as “divining”, witching involves walking while lightly holding a forked twig at the points of each side of the split.  Legend has it when the twig passes over water, the opposite end will point toward the ground.

Once while visiting an East Texas old graveyard with long-time resident and expert on everything East Texas, Keith Stephens, he told me and the group we were with a legend I hadn’t heard.  This legend states that if one carries a small witch-hazel twig in each hand pointing straight in front of them, the twigs will turn to the right or left when passing over the grave of a woman.  Every member of the group proceeded to try, and it proved true for each of us.  Perhaps there is a little magic in this interesting genus.

Their blooms certainly seem to be magical, blooming at the height of winter when no other plant dares to.  I’ve seen them bloom from mid December to mid January.  It seems foolhardy for a plant to bloom at this time, but by doing so they receive little to no competition from other species for hungry pollinators.  Though few insects are active this time of year I have observed several hover flies visiting the same witch-hazel shrub on a cool January day.

The most common and wide-spread species of witch-hazel in the U.S. is the American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  In Texas it ranges over much of the southern Pineywoods with a disjunct population in the Edward’s Plateau.  It can be identified by its pure yellow flowers.

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American Witch-hazel

The Big-leaf Witch-hazel (Hamamelis ovalis) was only recently discovered in Texas.  This species was first described in 2006.  At the time it was thought to be restricted to just a single site in Mississippi. Shortly after it was discovered at a handful of other sites in Mississippi and Alabama.  A couple of years ago it was found in the rich forested slopes of extreme eastern Texas. Though it may yet be discovered in parts of Louisiana, it appears to exhibit an interesting disjunction noted in a number of other species in the coastal plain.

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

The flowers of Hamamelis ovalis are generally maroon or wine-colored, however they can occasionally be orange or bi-colored, with orange centers and yellow petal-tips.

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Big-leaf Witch-hazel

Observing the witch-hazel in winter helps to satisfy the wildflower withdrawal that tends to come with winter.  Fortunately here in East Texas our winters are fairly short, and in just a few short weeks we should begin to see the blooms of our brilliant spring ephemerals!

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