Friday, October 31, 2014

Episode 238 (10/31/14 Halloween season episode): American Witch Hazel

Click to listen to episode (3:09)


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week starting on Halloween 2014.

SOUNDS – 15 sec

What better than the sounds of creaking, hollow trees, an owl’s screech, and an imaginary witch laugh to conjure up a Halloween landscape?  But for this Halloween-week episode, consider a much quieter, but still mysterious, part of that landscape: the American Witch Hazel plant.  This shrub or small tree—a native to moist, shady habitats in Virginia and throughout the eastern United States—has two noteworthy water connections.  First is the use of its forked twigs in “dowsing,” “divining,” or “water witching” to try to find groundwater, an ancient practice that some people still follow.  In fact, the “witch” in the plant’s common name probably derives from an old English word that means “bend,” apparently referring to the plant’s flexible twigs and, perhaps, also to the belief that a dowsing rod will bend toward groundwater.  Second, extracts from the plant’s bark and leaves have long been used—medicinally and cosmetically—as an astringent, that is, a substance used to dry fluids and shrink tissues.  Besides its reputed water-finding ability and its established fluid-drying uses, American Witch Hazel is also remarkable for its unusual blooming time.  Bright yellow flowers appear in late fall, often seen beside fruits from the previous season.  When those fruits ripen, also in fall, seeds are forcibly ejected some distance, leading to yet another possible origin of the plant’s name: that people attributed to witchcraft the mysterious sound of those far-flung seeds hitting the ground.   And if all of these unusual connections weren’t enough, “witch hazel” is one of many slang terms used for heroin.

From its name, to its uses, to its unusual flowering and fruiting, Witch Hazel offers botanical treats far beyond the season of creepy Halloween cackles.

SOUND – 3 sec

Thanks to Mike Koenig and for making the laughing witch sound available for public use.

For other water sounds and music, and for more Virginia water information, visit our Web site at, or call us at (540) 231-5463.  From the Virginia Water Resources Research Center in Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


[All Internet addresses mentioned were functional as of 10/31/14]

American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooming in Blacksburg, Va., October 6, 2014.
A cultivated, non-Virginia-native species of witch hazel blooming in Blacksburg in March 2011. 
A species native to the Ozarks (Hamamelis vernali) and some Asian species bloom in late winter to early spring.
The laughing witch sound was recorded by Mike Koenig and made available (10/26/09 upload) online at the Web site,, for public use under the Creative Commons license “Attribution 3.0.”  For more information on Creative Commons licenses, please see

Sources for this episode

Etymology of “witch hazel,” The Free Dictionary by Farlex, online at

“Drug Dictionary/Street Slang,” Clark County, Indiana, Prosecuting Attorney, online at

“The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel,” by John-Manuel Adriote, The Atlantic, Nov. 6, 2012, online at

“Plant of the Week: American Witchhazel (Hamemelis virginiana L.) ,” by Larry Stritch, U.S. Forest Service, online at

“Witch-Hazel: The Last Flowers of the Season,” Carol Gracie, Bedford Chapter of the National Audubon Society (in northern Westchester and Putnam counties, New York),

For more information on Witch Hazel and other Virginia plants

Other Virginia Water Radio episodes on plants are listed at our index, online at

, the Web site for the dendrology course by Dr. John Seiler in Virginia Tech's Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, offers identification keys and fact sheets to trees and other woody plants throughout North America.  The site is online at

The Flora of Virginia Project accompanies the 2012 publication of The Flora of Virginia, the first comprehensive manual of Virginia plants published since the 1700s; online at

The Virginia Native Plant Society, online at, provides information about native species and natural plant habitats.

The song "Witch Hazel," by Tom Gala, offers a musical account of how the cold-season blooming of witch hazel species can connect to human events and emotions.  The song is available online