Never growing more than 30' tall and with a thin trunk that removes its hard, close-grained wood from consideration as commercial timber, the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) nonetheless may be the most interesting tree of North America. It has associations with missiles, medicine, and magic.
In its extensive range from Canada's maritime provinces south to Florida and west to Iowa, it is the tardiest of trees. For instance, witch hazel's delicate golden flowers appear in late autumn, after its faint yellow leaves have dropped. And the fruits that followed last season's flowers only then completely ripen. But just before the snow flies, the fruit ensures witch hazel's continued existence by ejecting, like missiles, its tiny seeds. They travel 25' or more!
However, it wasn't propelling propagation that attracted settlers to the witch hazel. An aromatic plant, the tree was thought to have medicinal qualities, and extracts of its bark, leaves, and twigs were touted as curative. Although this assumption proved false, witch-hazel extract became a popular ingredient in cologne.
To the new arrivals, witch hazel also seemed to resemble the familiar European hazel, which was said to have magical powers. Legend had it that witches could use the hazel tree to locate both wealth and water. So it wasn't uncommon to find someone "witching" for water with a forked hazel branch.
The divining rod had to have grown so that one of the forks had faced north and the other south for exposure to the rising and setting sun. With a fork in each hand, the water finder let the branch feel the "pull" of hidden water and bend in that direction.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson