Finding water, finding health

January 27, 2003|by Dorry Baird Norris

It seems that no sooner do you get the pine needles swept up from your holiday decorations than it is time to think about trees.

January is too early to get trees in the ground, but it is the perfect time to decide what to plant. In the winter, trees and shrubs furnish the garden, standing silent guard, casting everchanging shadows and offering protection for the birds that spend their winters with us.

My first choice of a shrub for a new herb garden is the native witch hazel - Hamamelis virginiana. My affection for this "shrub that wants to be a tree" undoubtedly stems from my childhood. When I was growing up in the 1930s, my mother swore by distilled witch hazel and Humphrey's Witch Hazel Ointment (a patent medicine for hemorrhoids) as a sovereign cure for almost everything. Scraped knees, bug bites and poison ivy got doused or salved with one or the other. Perhaps, she reasoned that, if it could assuage the pain of the miserable discomfort of piles it would work wonders on any childhood bump or pain.


Now a whiff of the clean scent that John Burroughs describes as "like cool water to the hand" is a reminder of my mother's soothing touch.

Martha Bockee Flint gives us this lovely description of "The wych-hazel rewards close observation, so exquisitely shaded are the tones of green in its coarse, rusty veined leaves. Last year's nuts are slowly ripening in close-sealed husks of brownish green scales, from which they will at length burst with a projectile force sending them many yards. The flower buds, which illumine the November woods with yellow tassels, thickest along the bare, gray stems, are wrapped in silky sheaths of russet brown, impenetrable by the summer heat."

A wonderful description, but she leaves out an important component - the scent that I remember so fondly. Fragrances are such a personal thing. Although Allen Patterson describes the scent as "foetid," I find that a tiny, blossoming twig will perfume the house with an indefinable and otherworldly fragrance.

Fall blooming Hamamelis virginiana thrives in moist woodlands from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico. Ours manages nicely on the north corner of the house at the foot of a drain pipe.

Native Americans used a decoction of the leaves and stems as an astringent, tonic, sedative and as a poultice for skin irritations.

Witch hazel appeared in the "U.S. Pharmacopoeia" from 1862 to 1916 as a treatment for piles, internal hemorrhages and eye inflammations. It is still recognized as a hemostatic (slows bleeding), a slightly sedative tonic as well as an astringent (contracts tissue.) This astringent quality has made witch hazel distillate popular as an after-shave with generation after generation of barbers.

Witch hazel twigs also have a more mystical use as divining rods. Forked twigs of hazel or willow are held firmly in the hands and proponents of this activity maintain that when the dowser passes over a vein of water the branch will exert a strong pull downward.

Some scientific studies have suggested that certain individuals do have the ability to "discover intuitively" the whereabouts of water and other buried things. Dowsing is not a lost art - when we built a house on a hill a quarter of a century ago a friend came and dowsed, successfully, for the site of a new well.

Hamamelis virginiana supposedly offers protection against evil influences. Carry a hazel twig to mend your broken heart and cool your passions.

This spring plant a witch hazel. Then each year, as the trees become bare and winter approaches, the shaggy yellow blossoms will distract you from the gloom of the coming cold and be a reminder that the season of warmth and sunshine is just five months away.

Herbarist, lecturer and Hagerstown resident Dorry Baird Norris is a member of the International Herb Association, a member-at-large of the Herb Society of America and author of "The Sage Cottage Herb Garden Cookbook." She welcomes questions about the non-medical use of herbs. E-mail her at or write in care of The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

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