Witch Hazel, Harbinger of Spring
January 25, 2011

The first day of spring is traditionally and officially celebrated on Equinox, that magical day every year when the sun is above the horizon exactly 12 hrs, no matter where you are on the planet. Not to take anything away from that day and all its significance, there are other ways to celebrate the arrival of springtime. One is the bursting forth of the coming season's new life, in the form of leaves or flowers. And one of the very first species to send forth such growth in North America is the witch hazel. Today, our witch hazel tree started opening its buds to reveal its wonderful little yellowish green flowers. It was a welcome sight.

The witch hazel is a contrarian in many ways, and that's part of why I like it so much. To start with, the flowers don't really look like flowers. The petals are extremely long and twisted, almost like confetti streamers. Secondly, the flowers emerge before the leaves emerge, where most common deciduous plants are the other way around. Third, the flowers don't smell sweet, they smell spicy. That's a nice alternative to what can sometimes be fruity overkill in the flower beds later in the year. And in fall, the small leaves turn a golden color that reminds me of the aspens from my native Colorado. When sunlight hits a witch hazel in her autumn colors, she just shines.

But this plant, whether as tall shrub or small tree, has much more to offer besides wacky flowers. It is a great friend to the herbalist, offering a powerful astringent and anti-inflammatory from its bark and leaves. Many folks have witch hazel astringent in their cosmetics or first aid cabinet without knowing where it came from. Yet this substance can ease everything from skin inflammation and irritation to bruises, diarrhea and even dysentery.

Witch hazel also has an interesting reputation as being the single best source of divining rods. For those of you who aren't familiar with divining rods, those are the tools used to "divine" sources of underground water. Those who can do such divining work are sometimes called water witches. It's a skill that can be learned, but is often passed down in families as a treasured inheritance. Some would claim it's all imagination and subjective perceptions, where perhaps the person was following subconscious cues in the landscape. Or perhaps it's all just charlatan theatrics, and the person actually already knew where the water seams were. I'm not so sure. Having come from dry country, yes I know there are often cues for water's presence in the landscape. The plant life and the wildlife patterns often indicate where water lay right beneath the surface. But I've known water witches who could walk a uniform pasture, without even subtle hints of water, and find the perfect spot to sink that well so that you find generous water only 50' down instead of a stingy well at 100' down. Now that's a skill to be treasured. If witch hazel is the branch of choice to accomplish that, I'll take their word for it.

Perhaps witch hazel's most important use for us is actually as something of an emotional balm. The end of January and beginning of February can be cold, damp, and sunless in the Pacific Northwest. Yes the days are finally starting to get longer, but we still have many days of chilling rain and clouds that never quite clear. Sometimes the temps can wander towards 50F but more typically they are down in the 40s and drop below freezing all too often. So the eye as well as the soul starts to yearn for signs of life, positive evidence that spring really is coming and the earth really is waking up from its slumber. The rain will cease, the skies will part, the sun will shine again and restless hands will once again dig in warm rich soil. So any harbinger of spring is welcome, particularly one as bright and cheerful as the witch hazel. Those yellowish-green streamers seem almost loud against the dark greens, browns and grays of a Pacific Northwest winter. The eye feasts with that kind of color against such a dark backdrop.

So I'll get out my planting trays, finalize my planting schedule, pull my seeds out of storage and get going on this year's first crops. If the witch hazel can find springtime like it can find water, there's no time to lose even when it looks like winter will never end. And planting is a task I'm happy to finally undertake. Thank goodness for witch hazel to signal that moment.

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