Witch hazels are large shrubs that flower in fall or winter. Their name is derived from the old English word “wice” which means pliant or bendable, also the root for words wicker and weak. One of the favored sources of wood for dowsing, which is also known as divining or water witching, it’s believed that wice became witch based on this usage. Hazel came from their resemblance to elms, especially Ulmus glabra, the most common elm of the British Isles. Early colonists assumed they were related (based on foliage), which they are not, but the common name stuck. Conclusively, witch hazels lack good or evil powers and are not hazels, but they are excellent shrubs.
There are 6 species, 2 native to North America, 1 specifically to Virginia. The rest are Chinese or Japanese and most winter-flowering plants are hybrids, bred to enhance petal color and size of flower. Hamamelis virginiana (our native species) flowers in November, covering itself with fragrant yellow flowers, hidden somewhat by foliage that has not completely fallen. The winter flowering witch hazels open their flowers from February to March. Yellow, orange or rusty-rose, petals are thin and long, like colorful streamers. As delightful as their flowers are, fall foliage is exceptional, usually the same color range as the flowers (yellow, red or orange). Add their incredible drought tolerance, and you have a winning shrub.
Their use by dowsers is well known. Other popular dowsing woods include willow, peach, and apple. The search for water is the most common dowsing technique, but finding buried substances like gems or metals are not uncommon. In the 15th century Germany, the first historical reference to dowsing was for metals. In the Vietnam War, Marines used dowsers to search for tunnels and buried weapons.
A dowser will cut a branch in a Y shape, fresh or green. The person holding the branch is detecting the “interplay of radiation” or finding the sources aura. The branch (or divining rod) will dip as it finds what the dowser is looking for.
If you’re wondering, can anyone become a dowser? The answers vary from, yes, you can go to school for that, to no-way, you have to be a special individual. There are certainly naysayers, and skeptics, but when something has lasted this long, I’d like to think there’s something to it. What I do know is – when it comes to planting a witch hazel, don’t hesitate.