When Aunt Bett helped me cut some branches of Witch Hazel to place in water on my bedside table, she didn't tell me the seed pods would explode and shower my bed with tiny black seeds. There is nothing like a loud POP! to bring you out of a dead sleep. Since my room was upstairs and the window was right beside my bed, I consider myself fortunate to have lived to tell the tale.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Sometimes I think I must have had nine lives like a cat. There are so many times that I got myself into a world of trouble, it's amazing that I am still here to tell about it. And most of those times had something to do with Aunt Bett. Take the Witch Hazel story. It really wasn't Aunt Bett's fault, but she was my enabler. We were in search of twigs and bark of the Witch Hazel plant and it was around the time of Thanksgiving. A bit of background might be important right about here, before I get to the rest of the story, so please bear with me for a minute while the teacher in me takes over.
Witch Hazel was a plant that we gathered in the late fall. I was pretty familiar with Witch Hazel because I always saw it in my mom's stash of lotions and creams. It was in a bottle and the liquid was so clear I could see right to the other side. I was never supposed to get into those lotions or creams, or even Mom's perfume, and usually I didn't, but I do remember rubbing witch hazel on my skin a time or two. It didn't seem to do very much, so I wasn't really interested in it, until Aunt Bett told me that we were going in search of it.
Witch Hazel, (Hamamelis virginiana) grew as a large bush ,or perhaps a small tree would be a better description, in my beloved mountains of southeast Kentucky. It had a lot of forked branches and Aunt Bett told me they were used for witching for water, her term for using a divining rod. I told her that I thought I might like to try that too. She had a lot of other uses planned for it, though, and she told me about some of them while we climbed the north side of the mountain. We found the bush on that November day, and it was breathtaking in the morning sunlight. It was such a bright yellow that it looked to be glowing against the stark grays and browns of the rest of the mountain . Upon closer examination, I found that it was blooming with tiny spider like yellow blossoms all clustered together on its branches. The scent was heavenly. It very nearly took my breath away on that cold morning. We cut several branches from the shrub, it was a very large bushy plant, and looked like a short tree to me, but Aunt Bett called it a Witch Hazel Bush. I wasn't allowed to use her cutting knife, she was sure I might cut myself, and I probably would have. But I held the upper branches away as she took some lower branches from the bottom of the bush. I helped her cram them very carefully down into the burlap bag she had carried in the big pocket of her overcoat. The bag was bigger than I was as we headed back down the mountain, but I helped Aunt Bett by carrying the bottom of it. It wasn't very heavy but it was very full.
We came to a resting spot and she had fixed a thermos of hot chocolate that we shared. While we sat and rested and drank the hot chocolate, she told me the plans she had for the Witch Hazel branches. It seems that Native Americans first used a decoction of the bark for skin ulcers, sores and tumors, so she was going to do the same thing. She told me we would also use some of it for dysentery, for colds and cough, but the most important use would be as a blood purifier. I assured her that my blood was perfectly pure and so I would not need to take any of it. She smiled as she went on to say that we would make a salve to use on insect bites and bee stings, and we would use the liquid as a lotion because it was good for the skin. When we arrived back at her house, we prepared the branches by cutting them into small pieces and boiling them three times, adding more water each time, to make the decoction. Then we strained the plant parts and saved the liquid to be used in salves, syrups and lotions. I asked Aunt Bett if I could save a few of the branches to put in water to decorate my room. She agreed and I was the happy recipient of a large bundle of the lovely scented yellow flowers, complete with last season's seed pods which remained on the blossoming branch. I was on my way to having a bright yellow bouquet in my bedroom.
I went home with the branches in my arms, I got out of my coat and asked my mom for a large vase. I filled it with water and placed the branches in it, then carefully climbed the stairs to my room. My dad had recently installed a coal furnace and had connected it to the chimneys that were already in place so that the whole house would be warm. The fireplaces were covered, and we had fairly consistent heat throughout the entire house. One chimney came straight up through the floor and on through the ceiling of my room. My bed was right beside the chimney, and a double window was at the head of the bed. On the other side of the chimney was a small table and it was on this table that I placed the vase of yellow blossoms, pulling the table slightly forward so that I could see it from my bed. This was in November, you remember, and sometime during the night, my Dad stoked the furnace so that we would be comfortable as we slept. I had been asleep for awhile, and in the middle of the night I was rudely awakened by some loud popping sounds, and felt something small raining down on me and my covers. I screamed. "The house is on fire, the house is on fire..." I had been warned that if the chimney ever got hot or if I saw smoke or fire, I was to yell to my parents then climb out the window to the roof, jump down to the lower porch roof and slide down the drain pipe. I forgot about the window, but I sure did yell. Everybody came running. Mom grabbed me and my covers in the dark, but Dad had enough sense to turn the light on. Not a fire was in sight but I was covered in small shiny black things. Dad checked the chimney, and Mom checked around my room. I shivered on the steps.
Finally my school teacher mother started laughing. "Your vase of flowers has erupted," she finally said. Ahhh, goodness....I had awakened the entire family because I was frightened by popping seeds. You see, when the seed pods of the Witch Hazel get warm, they burst open and spray their seeds everywhere. And those seeds could surely fly. I spent most of the night trying to pick them off my covers and out of my bed and hair. The next day wasn't much more fun because seed pods kept on erupting in the heat of the house and I kept gathering up the shiny black seeds. I saved them all for Aunt Bett because I knew she liked to eat them. When I was sure there were no more unopened seed pods on the branches, I was able to enjoy the yellow flowers again. My mother loved to tell that story, but let me tell you....that was the absolutely last time I brought Witch Hazel branches into my room.
In my research I have found that Witch Hazel is one of the few medicinal plants that is approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. It is high in tannins and is used to check internal and external bleeding. It is commonly an astringent ingredient in personal care products such as deodorants, creams, and soaps. Some studies today indicate it has significant antiviral properties to fight the Herpes simplex virus. It is considered to be an antioxidant, and an anti-inflammatory agent.
The very best information that I learned, my friends, is that it is also effective in anti-aging and anti-wrinkling. Purse is on my shoulder, keys are in my hand, I am on my way to stock up! I'll let you know if it works.
All photos of Witch Hazel are from Plant Files. Thanks to photographers: Gabrielle, Viburnum Valley, Snapperdesigns and Willmetge.
Resources for this article came from my Aunt Bett's writings, Dr. Stuart Urbach, and from the following websites:
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.