Ozark Witch-Hazel

Hamamelis vernalis
Hammamelidaceae (witch-hazels)

A shrub, often sending up sprouts from the base, or (less commonly) a small tree (especially in cultivation).

Leaves alternate, simple, 2–5 inches long, inverted egg-shaped to oval, tip blunt or rounded, base wedge-shaped to rounded, uneven; edges wavy to almost lobed above the middle; dark green above, with veins lying below the surface, paler below, with veins prominent.

Bark tight, not peeling; gray to brown, often with gray blotches, pores narrow, cream-colored.

Twigs rather stout, light brown to reddish-brown or gray, densely velvety-hairy, later smooth and light or dark gray.

Flowers January–April, clustered or solitary, fragrant; petals 4, yellow to dark red, narrow, ribbonlike or straplike.

Fruits September–October; a hard, woody, elliptical capsule ½ inch long, splitting down a 2-parted tip/ending in 4 sharp, curved points. Capsule pops open, forcibly discharging seeds to a distance of up to 30 feet. Seeds large, hard, black, 1 or 2 per capsule.

Height: to 10 feet; spread: to 8 feet.
Habitat and conservation: 
Occurs in gravel and rocky dry streambeds, at the base of rocky slopes and along streams, and rarely on wooded hillsides in rocky draws. Also widely cultivated, in part for its amazing trait of blooming as early as January, sometimes when snow is on the ground. This species, along with eastern witch-hazel (H. virginiana), has long been used as a source for making witch-hazel extract, used in shaving lotions and ointments for treating bruises and sprains.
Distribution in Missouri: 
Occurs naturally in southern and east-central Missouri, but cultivated statewide.
Human connections: 
Witch-hazel is now used for landscaping and erosion prevention. But forked switches of this plant have long been used by Ozark "witch wigglers" or "water witches" (water finders) to find the best places to dig wells. Missouri's great folklorist, Vance Randolph, described this fascinating ritual.
Ecosystem connections: 
Deer eat the shoots and leaves. Beaver, squirrels and rabbits sometimes eat the bark. Turkey and grouse eat the seeds and flowers.
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