Witch Hazel,

Which Plants Are Witch?

By —— Bio and Archives--October 8, 2007

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The Babylonians believed in a female demon that inhabited ruins. Her name, they said, was Lilith. However, in Hebrew folklore Lilith was Adam’s first wife. Then in medieval times she was a famous witch. Likewise, Hecate was the Greek goddess of earth, moon and underworld only later, as Macbeth discovered, to preside over all witches.

Confusing as all this is, you can rely on the English language to confuse and confound still further. Take the large shrub or small tree commonly known as witch hazel (Hamamelis). In fall, the eastern North American species, H. virginiana, scents woodland trails with its fragrant yellow blooms. In eastern Asia, the Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) is spring flowering with its western Chinese cousin (H. mollis), which has similarly sweet-scented flowers, blooming in late winter. All may find use in the garden as ornamentals.

A lotion distilled from the twigs of witch hazel has astringent qualities. It has been valued for centuries for bruise, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, eye-lotions and, additionally, by those men allergic to conventional aftershave preparations. Such can be purchased in many modern drug stores.
So what is the association with witches that the common name apparently implies? Another use offers a clue. The forked twig has long been reputed to be an effective divining rod for the discovery of underground water sources. The Old English for such a pliable stick is wych. This has over time been corrupted to “witch.”

Strangely, a handsome Eurasian tree has retained the original spelling in its common name. Wych elm, Ulmus glabra, is more usually seen as an ornamental “weeping” tree of no great height but with drooping branches. U. g. ‘Camperdownii’, the Camperdown Elm, originated at Camperdown House in Scotland around 1850. Even this name is confusing, as it originates with the Dutch Kamperduin, an area on North Sea, off which the British won a naval victory over Dutch 1797.

Strange and stranger things have happened in the twilight world of human beliefs. Cardea was a Roman goddess of door-hinges and also protectress of children against vampire-witches. Earlier the Egyptians believed their god Bes, in addition to presiding over art, music and dancing, could also avert witchcraft.

Then again, more than a few moderns continue to believe in horoscopes. Many a newspaper publisher has discovered the necessity of retaining an astrologer on staff or risk losing readers. Unlike in gardening these do not fall into the domain of witches – for there certainly are plenty of truly witch plants, some even downright bewitching.

The floribunda rose ‘Witching Hour’ was introduced in 1967. One of the darkest of all red roses, a profuse bloomer, it has been suggested for hedges as well as rose beds and borders. Unfortunately it lacks any fragrance.

Most nurseries that stock Fothergilla list it by its scientific name. But this southern relative of witch hazels from Virginia to Georgia and Alabama is known as witch alder. Hardy into Toronto, F. gardeni makes fine dwarf shrub for borders or foundation plantings, with long sprigs of white blooms in spring and brilliant yellow foliage in the fall.

The buttercup witch hazel, Corylopsis pauciflora, and the spike witch hazel C. sinensis, are from the Orient. Like the Asian Hamamelis, to which they are distantly related, they bear small fragrant flowers, which appear in spring before their foliage.

More exotic is the shadow witch orchid, Ponthieva racemosa, a small terrestrial orchid from tropical South America. Occasionally it is raised in cultivation by orchid fanciers for its erect stalk that bears a loose cluster of small, half-inch blooms with lip uppermost.

Then there are the plants such as that North American native perennial Agropyron repens, perhaps better known as witch grass. It is also called couch-grass and quack-grass along with many an unprintable name by weeding gardeners. Another native, Panicum capillare, an annual that is also known as ‘old witch grass,’ is not so troublesome.

Witches’ brooms may or may not be such, depending on your point of view. The tangled mass of twigs growing on a tree branch is often mistaken for a squirrel’s nest. Virus, fungi or other pathogenic organisms may cause the abnormal growths. They can occur on both deciduous and coniferous trees and even shrubs. Although viewed as unsightly by some, they appear to do little if any harm to their hosts, bewitched or no.

Not so that of St. Walpurga, perhaps the strangest case of bewitching. The 8th-century English nun was renown for her activity in converting the heathen Hun. The night before 1st May, originally dedicated to her, became Walpurgis Night, in German folklore witches’ Sabbath on the Brocken. Unlike the wychs to the west in merry old England, there appears to be no explanation for the change of name.

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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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