Photo by Janet Loughrey
The months between Christmas and spring stretch interminably for ardent gardeners, who grow restless for any sign of life in the landscape. While most plants lie in dormant slumber, the long, slender branches of witch hazel burst into bloom with ribbon-like petals of yellow, orange or red. The delicately fragrant flowers give renewed hope that spring is not far away.
The American Indians first discovered that witch hazel bark, boiled into a tea or mixed with animal fats into a poultice, has therapeutic qualities. A natural astringent, witch hazel soothes irritated skin and shrinks inflamed tissues, and is a key component of everything from facial cleansers to pore-tightening products, aftershave lotions, and hemorrhoid pads.
Among the plant world's many miracles, witch hazel may be the most restorative. In colder parts of the country, it is one of the only big plants to bloom during the low-light days when gardeners feel most despondent. To stumble unexpectedly across a good-size witch hazel shrub during a snowy January walk is inevitably to be set alight by the not-quite-rational sense that spring is on its way. The flowers—delicate bits of yellow, copper, or red ribbon—blow outward from bare branches like streamers from a party cracker.