Reflections in Nature

While attending a meeting last week, a man sitting behind me asked if I ever had heard of anyone finding the location of underground water by using a stick. The man went on to say that, by using a stick, he was able to locate and trace buried water lines on his neighbor’s property, which needed to be repaired.

I replied that through the years, I met several people who had the gift of being water witches, or dowsers, meaning those who use divining rods to locate underground water. The forked branch of a witch hazel tree is what most dowsers use.

Years ago, I was introduced to water witching by a friend who demonstrated his ability to find underground water using a metal clothes hanger. Then, he had me try; however, it didn’t take long before we realized that I didn’t have the gift.

Witch hazel is classified as a large shrub or a small tree. In the fall, after most trees have lost their leaves, the witch hazel is in full bloom.

The origin of the “witch” in witch hazel has been attributed to an Old English term for branches that bend easily, a characteristic of the plant.

The name “witch hazel” originally was applied to the English elms, with their flexible, Y-shaped, forked branches that were used as the source of divining rods. In America, the colonists transferred the name to the witch hazel, which had similar branches.

Witch hazel, which is a native tree, was associated with lore and magic. Legend has it that witch hazel branches were used to find witches, who used it to find gold and water.

When settlers came to America, they named Hamamelis virginiana the witch hazel.

The scientific name Hamamelis is from an ancient Greek name for some plants that produce flowers and fruits at the same time.

Witch hazel first was discovered in Virginia by John Banister, an English missionary.

The witch hazel tree now is in full bloom with showy, golden blossoms. After the witch hazel leaves have fallen from the trees, the blossoms appear as yellow ribbons tied on the bare branches.

However, the witch hazel tree has yet another surprise. While the blossoms are in bloom, the tree also contains the seed pods from the previous year; hence, the scientific name Hamamelis. The witch hazel is our only tree that produces ripe fruit and blossoms at the same time.

The fruit is a two-celled capsule that feels as if it is covered with suede. New capsules, which are being formed with the blossoms, will be dormant throughout the winter and summer months.

Twelve months after being formed, the capsules will come to life. With the warm fall sun overhead, each capsule begins to dry out and shrink as the seeds inside begin to ripen. The dried capsule, acting as a cannon, fires the two dark seeds.

Have you ever held a seed between your fingers and squeezed? The seed goes flying when too much pressure is applied. Well, the witch hazel works on the same principle.

How far do the seeds travel? The record seems to be about 40 feet. Of course, it all depends on the angle the capsule is positioned on the branch. An angle of about 45 degrees seems to produce the greatest distance.

On a warm fall day, a witch hazel tree lays down quite a barrage, with seeds fired in all directions.

Although the seeds are a favorite food of grouse and turkeys, all types of wildlife feed upon them.

Native Americans called the witch hazel “oc-eh-nah-kwe-ha-he,” meaning spotted stick. The branches of the witch hazel tree are brown and speckled with light brown dots.

Two common names for the witch hazel tree are cannon of the forest and spotted alder.

With the tree blossoming in the fall when no insects are available, the plant pollinates itself. Its half-moon-shaped buds are rolled inward in a closed spiral and inside the bud are the anthers that hold the pollen. Each anther has two small doors that remain closed throughout the summer and then, in the fall, the doors fly open, throwing pollen on the blossoms to fertilize.

In Colonial America, witch hazel was used as a folk medicine. By boiling the stems of the shrub, a brew was made that would be used for bruises, sprains, ulcers, skin rashes and eye inflammations.

The American Medical Association still recognizes the medicinal value of witch hazel. Today, it is used as an additive in rubbing alcohol and in treating poison ivy, insect bites, bee stings and minor burns.

The witch hazel tree is remarkable, from its October-November blossoms, to the exploding seeds and its self-pollination. It is truly one of nature’s wonders.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

On Oct. 30, a man stopped at our house, carrying a container with a bug inside that he wanted me to identify. He found the insect on the side of his house and was concerned that these insects (if there were more) would move inside the house, with cold weather approaching.

The insect was found to be a katydid. It surprised me to find a katydid that late in the season; however, a killing frost had not yet occurred.

To me, one of the true sounds of summer are the calls of the katydids. I often have stopped what I was doing just to listen to their calling.

The northern katydid is a relative of the cricket and grasshopper, with one difference being that both male and female northern katydids sing, while only the male crickets and grasshoppers sing.

The name katydid is derived from the repetitive call, which sounds like “katydid, katy-didn’t.”

There are many species of katydids, with each species having its own rasping song that is produced by rubbing the forewings (one of which is ridged) together. The katydid’s tympana (hearing organs) are on their front legs

Here, in Pennsylvania, we have the northern katydid, which is considered the true katydid due to being the first species to have its call transcribed. The katydids sing in the evening and are most active at night.

The katydid eats leaves, flowers, stems and fruits of many plants. A few species of katydids are predators and will eat other insects.

The northern katydid is leaf-green in color; the fore wings are convex (crossed by many conspicuous veins); the head is pointed at the front, can be up to 3 inches long and has antennae that are two or three times the length of its body.

The katydid goes through three stages of development: egg, nymph and adult.

During the fall, the female lays her eggs on either bark or young stems, where they overwinter and then hatch in the spring.

Newly hatched katydids are known as nymphs. The nymphs, which seldom are seen, appear as adults except without wings.

A nymph sheds it skin (molts), which enables it to grow. By the time this insect reaches adulthood, it will have developed wings. The lifespan of a katydid is one year.

Since katydids spend most of their time in trees, in forested areas and fields, they are heard but seldom seen because of being green.

Katydids are able to fly short distances when threatened; however, this flight is more of a downward flutter. If a katydid lands on the ground, it seeks the nearest tree to climb.

Males alternate chirps when not more than 25 to 50 feet from one another. If two chirping males are close together (perhaps within 2 or 3 feet) they lengthen their chirps, which could be taken for aggressive sounds. Aggressive chirping stimulates the other males to either return the call in the same pattern or to cease stridulating and leave the area.

As twilight nears, the male katydid mounts the upper branches of the tree in which he lives and begins his noisy calls as evening approaches. These calls are quickly answered by rivaling males in neighboring trees.

Throughout the night, the calling of “katydid, She-didn’t” is heard, with one having to use their imagination to hear the resemblance to the words katydid.

In most cases, the song is a regular repetition of a multi-pulse phrase occurring at about one-second intervals. Neighboring individuals often alternate their phrases with the combined tempo, being noticeably quicker than that of a solitary singer.

In northern populations, the pulse rate within each phrase is slower, and the most frequent numbers of pulses per phrase are three and two. This permits the song to be rendered “katydid, she-didn’t, she-did.”

Alternating individuals sound as though they are arguing about whether Katy did or didn’t.

Well, the katydid females have laid their eggs, and I suspect that most have succumbed to the cold weather. It won’t be until next summer that we once again hear the calling of the katydids.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.