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.