Monday, October 24, 2022

Episode 639 (10-24-22): A Halloween Season Salute to the Witch Hazel Plant

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (4:15).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 10-21-22.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the weeks of October 24 and October 31.   This revised episode from Halloween 2014 is part of a series this year of episodes related to trees and shrubs.

SOUNDS – ~9 sec 

What better than an Eastern Screech-Owl calling eerily from a dark woods to conjure up a Halloween landscape?

But for this Halloween season episode, consider a much quieter, but still mysterious, part of that landscape: the American Witch Hazel plant.  This shrub or small tree—a native 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, a centuries-old practice that some people still follow.  In fact, the “witch” in the plant’s common name may derive from an old English word that means “bend,” apparently referring to the plant’s flexible twigs and, perhaps, 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 fall and can continue into December, often seen beside fruits from the previous season.  When those fruits ripen, 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.

From its name, to its uses, to its unusual flowering and fruiting, Witch Hazel offers botanical treats far beyond Halloween season’s creepy screeches.

SOUND – 3 sec – Screech-Owl 

We close a musical observation about how seeing a cold-weather flowering tree can inspire human resilience.  Here’s about 50 seconds of a song called “Witch Hazel,” by Tom Gala, from his 2011 album, “Story After Story.”

MUSIC - ~53 sec – Lyrics: “I am looking at Witch Hazel blooming in a garden—the bright yellow flowers in the middle of wintertime.  And I tell my heart be strong like the Witch Hazel flower, and you will not be injured by this dark and trouble time.”


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close this episode.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


This Virginia Water Radio episode revises and replaces Episode 238, 10-31-14.

The Eastern Screech-Owl sound was recorded by Virginia Water Radio in Blacksburg, Va., on the night of August 12, 2013.

“Witch Hazel,” from the 2011 album “Story After Story,” is copyright by Tom Gala, used with permission.  More information about Tom Gala is available online at

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at


An American Witch Hazel plant in Blacksburg, Va., blooming on October 13, 2022.

A different American Witch Hazel plant in Blacksburg, Va., blooming on January 6, 2023.


The following information is quoted from the U.S. Geological Survey, “Water Science School/What is Water Dowsing?”; online at

“’Water dowsing’ refers in general to the practice of using a forked stick, rod, pendulum, or similar device to locate underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances, and has been a subject of discussion and controversy for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“Although tools and methods vary widely, most dowsers (also called diviners or water witches) probably still use the traditional forked stick, which may come from a variety of trees, including the willow, peach, and witchhazel.  Other dowsers may use keys, wire coat hangers, pliers, wire rods, pendulums, or various kinds of elaborate boxes and electrical instruments.

“In the classic method of using a forked stick, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward.  The bottom or butt end of the ‘Y’ is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees.  The dowser then walks back and forth over the area to be tested.  When she/he passes over a source of water, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward.

“Water dowsers practice mainly in rural or suburban communities where residents are uncertain as to how to locate the best and cheapest supply of groundwater.  “Because the drilling and development of a well often costs more than a thousand dollars, homeowners are understandably reluctant to gamble on a dry hole and turn to the water dowser for advice.”

What does science say about dowsing?

“Case histories and demonstrations of dowsers may seem convincing, but when dowsing is exposed to scientific examination, it presents a very different picture.  The natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water.  In a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology, it is difficult not to drill and find water!

“Some water exists under the Earth's surface almost everywhere. This explains why many dowsers appear to be successful.  To locate groundwater accurately, however, as to depth, quantity, and quality, several techniques must be used.  Hydrologic, geologic, and geophysical knowledge is needed to determine the depths and extent of the different water-bearing strata and the quantity and quality of water found in each.  The area must be thoroughly tested and studied to determine these facts.”


Used for Audio

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

American Water Surveyors, “Water Witching: A Brief History,” by Gerald Burden, December 26, 2015, online at

Arbor Day Foundation, “Witchhazel/Hamamelis virginiania,” online at, “Flora of North America/Hamamelis,” online at

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Hamamelidaceae plant family,” online at 

Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope, Trees and Shrubs of Virginia, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1981.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center [Austin, Tex.], “Plant Database/Hamamelis virginiana,” online at

Sarina Smith, “The Wonders of Witch Hazel,” February 4, 2020, Haverford College [Pennsylvania] Arboretum, online at

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/Natural Resources Conservation Service, “PLANTS Database/American witchhazel,” online at

U.S. Geological Survey/Water Science School, “Water Dowsing,” online at

Alan S. Weakley, J. Christopher Ludwig, and John F. Townsend, Bland Crowder, ed., Flora of Virginia, Botanical Research Institute Press, Ft. Worth, Tex., 2012.  Information is available online at The Flora of Virginia Project,

For More Information about Trees and Shrubs in Virginia and Elsewhere

Center for Watershed Protection, “Trees and Stormwater Runoff,” online at

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Field Guide: Plants and Trees,” online at

James P. Engel, “Shrubs in the Understory,” February 2012, online at

Sanglin Lee and Alan Raflo, “Trees and Water,” Virginia Water Resources Research Center, Virginia Water Central Newsletter, pages 13-18, online at

Penn State Extension, “Trees, Shrubs, and Groundcovers Tolerant of Wet Sites,” prepared by N. Robert Nuss, and reviewed and revised by Scott Guiser and Jim Smellmer, October 2007, online at

Plant Virginia Natives, “Virginia Native Shrubs—Backbone of Our Landscape,” undated, online at

Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension, “How Trees Grow,” online at

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, Forests of Virginia, 2018, Resource Update FS-264, Asheville, N.C., 2020; available online at

U.S. Department of Agriculture/U.S. Forest Service, “State and Private Forestry Fact Sheet—Virginia 2022,” online (as a PDF) at

U.S. Department of Agriculture/Forest Service/Climate Change Resource Center, “Forest Tree Diseases and Climate Change,” online at

Virginia Botanical Associates, “Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora,” online at

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation/Natural Heritage Program, online at  See also “The Natural Communities of Virginia: Ecological Groups and Community Types,” online (as a PDF) at

Virginia Department of Forestry, “Virginia’s Forests,” online at  Some of the useful pages at that site are the following:
“Benefits of Trees,” online at;
“Common Native Trees of Virginia,” 2020 edition, online (as a PDF) at;
“Trees for Clean Water Program,” online at;
“Virginia Statewide Assessment of Forest Resources,” November 2020, online (as a PDF) at;
“Tree Identification,” online at

Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program, Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment, online at

Virginia Forest Products Association, online at

Virginia Native Plant Society, online at


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Plants” subject category.

Following are links to other episodes on trees and shrubs.

Introduction to trees and water – Episode 621, 3-21-22.
American Sycamore – Episode 624, 4-11-22.
Ash trees – Episode 376, 7-10-17 and Episode 625, 4-18-22.
Early spring wildflowers in woodlands – Episode 573, 4-19-21.
Fall colors and their connection to water movement in trees – Episode 638, 10-10-22.
“Fifteen Minutes in the Forest” video podcast series – Episode 637, 9-26-22.
Forest lands and work in Virginia – Episode 623, 4-4-22.
Maple trees – Episode 503, 12-16-19.
Photosynthesis – Episode 602, 11-8-21.
Poison Ivy and related plants, including the shrub Poison Sumac – Episode 535, 7-27-20.
Rhododendrons – Episode 574, 4-26-21.
Shrubs Introduction – Episode 630, 6-20-22.
Tree buds – Episode 622, 3-28-22.
Tree colors and changes in fall, including changes to water movement – Episode 638, 10-10-22.
Trees in watery habitats – Episode 626, 4-25-22.
Waterside trees as bird nesting habitat – Episode 627, 5-9-22.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2020 Music SOLs

SOLs at various grade levels that call for “examining the relationship of music to the other fine arts and other fields of knowledge.”

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-4: Living Systems and Processes
1.4 – Plants have basic life needs (including water) and functional parts that allow them to survive; including that plants can be classified based on a variety of characteristics.
2.4 – Plants and animals undergo a series of orderly changes as they grow and develop, including life cycles.
3.4 – Adaptations allow organisms to satisfy life needs and respond to the environment.\
3.5 – Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of organisms.
4.2 – Plants and animals have structures that distinguish them from one another and play vital roles in their ability to survive.

Grades K-5: Earth and Space Systems
1.7 – There are weather and seasonal changes; including that changes in temperature, light, and precipitation affect plants and animals, including humans.
2.7 – Weather patterns and seasonal changes affect plants, animals, and their surroundings.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources
K.11 – Humans use resources.
2.8 – Plants are important natural resources.
4.8 – Virginia has important natural resources.

Grade 6
6.6 – Water has unique physical properties and has a role in the natural and human-made environment.

Life Science
LS.7 – Adaptations support an organism’s survival in an ecosystem.

2015 Social Studies SOLs 

Grades K-3 Economics Theme
3.8 – Understanding of cultures and of how natural, human, and capital resources are used for goods and services.

World Geography Course
WG.4 – Types and significance of natural, human, and capital resources.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.
Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.
Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.
Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.
Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.
Episode 606, 12-6-21 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.