Awbury Tree of the Month: Witch Hazel

February features a winter beauty prized for its curative and magical properties. 

Welcome to the Year of Trees at Awbury Arboretum, where visitors can explore 56 acres of extraordinary native, champion, specimen and heritage trees, among ponds, meadows, and manicured gardens dotted with historic architecture. Every month throughout 2023, author Dan Sardaro highlights an exceptional tree on their blog, which we print up in The Local paper. February’s pick is the American witch hazel, a hardy Eastern forest tree with a mystical, medicinal history.

In summer months, witch hazel is practically indistinguishable from the other shaggy, shrubby trees and plants that make up the wooded understory below taller evergreen and deciduous species. But when the weather changes, after autumn’s fireworks have faded, witch hazel’s sunny yellow flowers catch the eye: sole splashes of color in bare winter landscapes.

Individual flowers may not be showy, but together in clusters along twisting branches and twigs, the effect is mesmerizing (especially when they shake like cheerleader pompoms in the breeze). But witch hazel is more than just beautiful flowers – it’s also an FDA-approved treatment for skin irritations, and an indigenous American folk remedy that’s been boiled, pressed, and distilled into health and wellness potions for centuries.

First Nations used witch hazel for skin conditions like ulcers and sores, they brewed teas to treat colds and coughs, and steamed twigs over hot rocks in sweat lodges to soothe body aches and pains. It was used to stop bleeding and relieve itching hemorrhoids. Today, many trusted brands and top-shelf cosmetics companies use witch hazel as a natural base for toners, cleansers, makeup removers and other skin-clarifying treatments.

Even better: it’s rumored to be magic! 😮

The “witch” in witch hazel refers to dowsing – aka “water witching” – because its flexible Y-shaped branches were believed to dip down when held over underground springs, mineral deposits, precious metals, and other buried treasures (this practice continues today, particularly in Appalachia).

In much the same way a witch hazel branch is known to draw itself towards lost and hidden rewards, it’s believed to also draw energy for magical practice. Witch Hazel brings light into dark places – it offers hope and joy. It’s good for finding things, too, both in our physical world and also within us. As a wayfaring tree, it’s of special use for travelers and anyone seeking a new path through uncharted territories.

More Fun Facts About Witch-hazel

  • There are two types of witch hazel – one blooms in the late fall and the other later in winter, when literally no other plants bloom.
  • Unlike most other plants, witch-hazels are not pollinated by bees or butterflies. Their pollinator? Moths. Renowned naturalist Bernd Heinrich noticed that winter moths, which shiver to raise their body temperatures enough to be active on cold nights, feed on witch hazel and inadvertently pollinate it. (The tree can also self-pollinate.)
  • It’s the only North American tree to have flowers, fruit and next year’s buds all at once (its name “hamamelis” means “together with fruit”). Witch hazel doesn’t just brighten up the forest but it provides food and shelter for birds, deer and many small mammals and insects, too.
  • When the pods of witch-hazels mature, they explode, making an audible POP! and launching shiny black seeds up to 30 feet away. This has earned the plant the nickname “snapping hazel.”
  • Other nicknames for witch hazel include: snapping alder, spotted alder, pistachio elm, and tobacco wood (as the leaf and inner bark are often enjoyed in sacred smoking blends)
  • Witch hazel was the active ingredient in America’s first mass-marketed toiletry product, “Golden Treasure” (later renamed Pond’s Extract, and still in business today).
  • Folk traditions recommend carrying the dried leaves in your pocket to help draw out grief and trauma. Hang witch hazel above doorways and windows to ward off negative energy. To use for dowsing, take a forked branch in both hands and focus all your energy on whatever it is you want to find (if your intention is strong enough, the branch will point you in the right direction).

More details in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s original article on Awbury’s website, where he dishes on local lore and his favorite witch hazel specimens in the arboretum. Follow Dan’s excellent blog with a whole calendar of special “tree-mendous” events throughout the year! Read last month’s Local summary on the Witch Hazel here.

Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) 

Main Entrance: One Awbury Road
Farm & Education Center: 6336 Ardleigh St
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The Arboreum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at; follow on Facebook and Instagram.

About Awbury Arboretum 12 Articles
Awbury Arboretum is the largest remaining open green space in Germantown. Its 56 acres are landscaped in the English romantic style, with open meadows, ponds, woods and rolling hills. Awbury’s mission is to preserve and interpret their historic house and landscape, in order to connect the community with nature and history. Awbury is free and open to the public every day (dawn til dusk). More info at Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter: @awburyarboretum

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