Witch Hazel is a native shrub found in the understory of oak and pine forests here in the Midwest. It's extra special to the late fall forest because it flowers in October and November. It's flowers are unique and very interesting to come upon in the forest in the fall. The shrub has the same name as the astringent on the shelf at the local grocery store or pharmacy. Bottled Witch Hazel is derived from the plant and used as a topical treatment for many skin irritations.
Despite popular opinion, the name Witch Hazel does not refer in any way to witches but is a derivative of the Old English word, Wice. The word refers to the pliancy of the branches. However Witch Hazel has a history steeped in folklore. It is thought that diving rods used to find fresh water wells were best when made from the trunks of the witch hazel shrub. Indigenous American also used the plant's sap for it's astringent and cooling properties for topical treatments.
When the colonists discovered the plant's properties, presumably from the local indigenous people, they exported the shrub to Europe and also developed distillation factories to produce what we now know as witch hazel which you can buy over the counter for topical application. While the astringent properties of witch hazel can dry skin, remove oil and provide a cool sensation on irritated skin, those same properties can cause pain when applied to wounds and it is not at all reccomended to take internally.
Due to it's beautiful yellow fall flowers, arching habit, shade tolerance and lovely summer foliage, this shrub has gained a popular following and is often used as a landscaping ornamental. There are many cultivated varieties to choose from as well. But if you're out for a walk in the woods and stumble upon this lovely shurb flowering in the understory some November afternoon, you can take a moment to appreciate its native beginnings as a lovely midwestern forest shurb.