Move over, pumpkin. There’s also another plant that some folks say belongs to Halloween — the witch hazel, a small, common tree native to most of Georgia.
It starts blooming around Halloween and continues to do so through December. At the time when most autumn leaves have fallen and the forest is going into winter dormancy, the witch hazel puts forth its fragrant, scraggly, ribbon-like yellow blossoms — the last wild blooms of the year.
Its late bloom time, common name and stringy flowers, though, aren’t the only traits that make the witch hazel unusual among Georgia’s flora — and perhaps an apt symbol for Halloween.
Some people — the so-called “dowsers” — say witch-hazel is the best wood for their “magic wands,” or divining rods, which supposedly can detect underground water sources. In a dowser’s hands, a Y-shaped witch-hazel branch will bend toward a water supply, indicating a suitable spot for a well.
Old-timers also believed that the witch hazel contained magical potions, in part because of its astringency properties. Native Americans used witch-hazel decoctions to treat colds, eye infections, minor wounds and skin ailments. Today, we can find FDA-approved witch-hazel extracts in pharmacies to treat those same ills.
Another unusual trait is that the witch hazel is Georgia’s only native tree that has its ripe seeds, flowers and next year’s leaf bud all on the same branch at the same time. The shiny black seeds take a year to ripen. About the same time the flowers are blooming, the seeds from last year’s flowers are ejected from their capsules with a force that hurls them as far as 40 feet.
The seeds are important winter food for wildlife, and the plant’s flower nectar provides nourishment for insects active in winter.
The origin of witch hazel’s name, though, is unclear. It may come from the Middle English word “wiche,” which means a strong, flexible branch.
IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be last-quarter on Wednesday. Mercury is low in the east just before dawn. Brilliant Venus is very low in the west at dusk and sets about an hour later. Mars is in the south around dark. Jupiter is low in the west at dusk. Saturn is low in the southwest just after dark.