The Arkansas woodlands look mostly barren in February. Somber grays and browns are interrupted only by the evergreen pines and cedars along with twining honeysuckle vines in the creek bottoms. The viridescent forest is still a month away. Even the serviceberry, one of the earliest bloomers with its snow-white blossoms, won’t be showing off until March. But if you look closely along the creeks draining the highlands you’ll notice a very early – or very late, depending on your point of view – bloomer. The wine and saffron colored flowers blend in surprisingly well with the late winter woods. The shrub with the subtle blossom has an unforgettable name, though. It’s called Ozark witch hazel.
Ozark witch hazel blooms January through March. The pictures in this article were taken mid-February. This is odd timing for a flowering plant. There aren’t many pollinators out and about in winter, and bloom times are guided by the symbiotic relationship between pollinators and flowering plants. But southern winters, even winters like the one we experienced last year, are sprinkled with warm days. Rarely more than a couple weeks go by that you don’t see small bees, flies, moths or even a butterfly here in the south. Because winter pollinator visits are often spaced widely apart, the Ozark witch hazel holds on to its blossoms for several weeks. Probably also due to its need to attract the sparse numbers of winter pollinators out and about, the flowers are quite fragrant. They’ve been described as smelling like honey and vanilla. My olfactory powers aren’t that discerning. After a big whiff the word that came to my mind was simply “sweet.”
Witch hazel gets its name from the use of its branches in the old art of water witching. The branches would dip or twitch when the dowser, or water witch, walked over an underground water table. This method was also supposedly used to find minerals, oil and even unmarked gravesites. The “witch” part of the name is said to come from the Middle English word “wych” or “wiche,” depending on which (see what I did there) etymology you believe, and it means pliable or bendable. Of course “witch” may also be a nod to the magical powers believed to be held in the plant for both finding water and healing the body.
Most of us have seen witch hazel in a bottle at the store, but the medicinal uses of this shrub stretch back to when only Native Americans walked in the New World. The extract from witch hazel is an astringent and anti-oxidant used for a wide range of skin issues and injuries.
Another interesting aspect of this plant is the way it distributes seeds. When the seed capsule reaches maturity in the fall, it forcibly “spits” the seeds sometimes as far as 30 feet. Though I’ve not tried them, I’ve read that the seeds are edible and taste like pistachios. So if you’re hiking along an Ozark stream this autumn, and get a hankering for pistachios, finding a fix is simple. Just listen for the sound of a spitting shrub.