Witch hazel normally blooms in late winter, but one at the Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens is ahead of its time. Manager Trish Fry posted a picture on Jan. 20 of a branch bearing yellow blooms. Last year she spotted this species blooming in late February.
"These are early by any standard," she wrote.
Witch Hazel blooms are unusual, appearing like tiny party streamers, sporting yellow, gold, orange or red flowers. Most cultivars have a delightful spicy fragrance that is if you're willing to bare your nose in the winter climate to sample. These small trees (from 3-8 metres tall) are hardy from Nova Scotia west to Ontario, Canada and south to Florida, and Texas in the United States.
As the warmer weather arrives, a small, horned, capsule-shaped fruit grows at the base of the flowers, eventually splitting to eject two to four shiny black seeds in the autumn. That's when the typically dark green foliage turns golden with hints of purple and red.
Witch Hazel extract has been used medicinally by American Indians who obtained it by steaming the twigs. It was also stocked in pharmacies of old. It's recommended as an astringent, with the bark and leaves derivative used in aftershave lotions, and for treating bruises and insect bites.
Trouble with hemorrhoids? Witch Hazel is the active ingredient in many ointments for these, helping to shrink and contract blood vessels back to normal size.
New mothers are sometimes administered Witch Hazel to treat postnatal tearing of the perineum. It is also used in treating acne. Psoriasis and eczema sufferers use Witch Hazel and it can be found as an ingredient in eye drops. Some people use it for spot and blemish control, others to shrink bags beneath the eyes and for varicose vein relief.
I found a humorous explanation for Witch Hazel's name on the Planet Botanic website:
"Peculiar plants are often associated with magic and practitioners of magic, and this is the case with witch hazel. The witch part of the name comes from merry old England.
“The plant looks somewhat similar to the hazel tree native to that country, a tree used by local witches in divining and making spells. Apparently, when English colonists arrived in the New World and saw the healing plant, one of them screamed, ‘Hey, isn’t that the hazel the witches back home use?’ The name stuck, and we still use it today."