My two favorite harbingers of spring are both witch hazels, one native to southern and central US and the other a cross between a Chinese and a Japanese witch hazel. I know, I know, I'm a natives girl. But if you saw my guilty-pleasure, 'Jelena', you'd want one, too! Part of the beauty of these plants is that the blossoms appear long before the leaves, and although the flowers are individually tiny and delicate, they cluster together along gray branches like mini-fireworks, a bright spot of color in an otherwise dreary late-winter landscape.
The Ozark witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, true to its latin name, marks the vernal equinox with a profusion of delicate yellow tassel-like blossoms, appearing suddenly, as if someone threw the flowers into the wind and they became trapped amongst its spreading branches. An especially nice size for a small garden, it grows between six and ten feet high and wide. Later in the season, its pagoda-like form and thick, textured leaves make it a good go-to shrub for staying dry during unexpected downpours.
Although I love my natives, the Jelena witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena', has more than earned its place in my sustainable plant palette. With its sweetly fragrant, spidery orange blooms and graceful form and stature, this shrub is a garden starlet. Its harbinger-of-spring status, pagoda-like branching, wavy textured leaves, and blazing fall color allows it to shine in every season.
How did the witch hazel get its name? Most likely from the practice of water witchery. A water witch or dowser is said to have the ability to locate underground sources of water using only a forked branch as a divining rod. Although ridiculed by science, practitioners have been dowsing all over the globe for centuries.
Given that in my world, plants are my friends and I enjoy talking to them, and that Avatar is my all-time favorite movie, I can somehow imagine the possibility that shaman-like people are able to tap into a plants' life force and follow the plants' connection to water. In fact, I just got goose bumps when I had this thought: witch hazel flowers look an awful lot like Avatar's floating eywa "blossoms" released by the feminine guiding life force of Pandora that acts to maintain the ecological equilibrium and the interconnectedness of all the plants and animals.
You may mock me, but how else can you explain that today's dowsers are actually hired by some well-digging companiesand private landowners to locate water for wells-and find it? Apparently the stick moves in their hands whenever they stand over a water source. Not surprisingly, witch hazels are typically found growing by rivers and streams.
Native americans boiled witch hazel twigs for an extract that healed cuts, bruises and skin inflammation. Today, witch hazel is still used to reduce skin redness and heal skin complications. You can find it in commercially prepared cosmetics and pharmaceuticals such as after-shave, acne treatment, antibacterial lotaions, shampoos and conditioners, and even hemorrhoid creams.
I keep telling myself that one of these days, I'll boil up some witch hazel on my own and put it to good use. That desire has been added to my ever-growing wishing jar of things-I-want-to-make-with-my-plants-in-the-garden.