No. 45. Hamamelis virginica.
English Name—WINTER WITCH HAZEL.
French Name—Hamamelier d'hyver.
Officinal Name—Hamamelis Cortex.
Vulgar Names—Witch hazel, Snapping hazelnut, Winter bloom, Pistachoe nut, &c.
Authorities—Lin. Mich. Pursh, Cutler, Schoepf, Mitchell, Colden, Catesby, fig. 2. Barton Flora, fig. 78, Elliott, &c.
Genus HAMAMELIS—Calix four cleft, persistent, with scales at the base. Petals four long and linear. Stamina four opposite to the petals. Filaments broad and short, anthers adnate, two celled, dehiscent by vertical valves, one pistil, two stigmas. Capsule coriaceous nut-like, two celled, two lobed, two valved above, valves cleft: one oblong seed in each cell.
Species H. VIRGINICA—Leaves obovate, obtuse, smooth, base obliquely cordate, margin erose; flowers in small remote clusters, calix and fruit pubescent externally.
Description—A shrub from six to ten feet high, with irregular branches, flexuose and knotty: bark smooth grey, with brown dots. Leaves rather large, smooth, alternate, petiolate, obovate, base with a small sinus and unequal lobes, margin with unequal faint teeth, commonly obtuse, end obtuse, nerves prominent.
Flowers on short pedicels, clustered three to fire together, in several places along the branches. Calix small, but enlarging with the fruit, with three or four scales at the base, divided into four thick oval pubescent segments. Petals yellow, much longer, linear, obtuse, often undulate or revolute. Stamina four opposed to petals, shorter than the calix. Pistil oval central, a short style, two stigmas obtuse. Fruit a nut-like Capsule, similar to a hazel-nut; but bilobed and split above, pubescent, yellowish, with two cells containing each an oblong black seed, with a broad arilla at the base. This capsule is one year ripening, and opens with elasticity and instantaneously with a noise, by two half valves, throwing the seeds off.
Locality—From New England to Carolina and Ohio, commonly on hills and mountains, near stony banks of streams. Rare in plains and alluvions.
History—This is a very singular Genus, formed by Linnaeus with the Trilopus of Mitchell, which name he ought not to have changed for the actual, which is the Greek name of the Mespilus or Medlar tree. He knew only one species, several are now known, which are sometimes polygamous, monoical and even dioical. They all blossom in winter, when no other tree is in bloom; the blossoms last from October to February. The fruits stand on the whole year, till next fall, and then explode successively with a noise, like Hura crepitans, scattering the seeds around. These seeds are eaten by the Indians, and in the South where they are called erroneously Pistachoe nuts, although quite unlike the Pistacia vera or true Pistachoe of the Mediterranean. They are similar in shape to the esculent Pine seeds of Pinus picea, cylindrical, shining black outside, white and farinaceous inside, rather oily and palatable.
The shrub resembles very much in the appearance of the leaves and nuts, the common hazelnut, Corylus Americana; but the blossoms are totally different. It has become in the United States the Witch hazel, affording the divining rods, employed by the adepts of the occult arts, to find or pretend to find Water, Ores, Salt, &c. under ground. The Alnus and Corylus are often substituted, a forked branch is used, the two branches held in both hands; when and where the point drops, the springs or metals sought for, are said to be! A belief in this vain practice is as yet widely spread.
It belongs to the Natural Order of BERBERIDES, distinguished by opposite petals and stamina, and to the section or family with capsular fruit like Jeffersonia. Also to Tetrandia monogynia of Linnaeus.
Qualities—The bark and leaves are somewhat bitter, very astringent, leaving a sweetish pungent taste: The smell is not unpleasant. It has not been analyzed as yet, but probably contains tannin, amarine, extractive, and an essential oil.
Properties—Sedative, astringent, tonic, discutient, &c. The Indians value this shrub highly, and it is much used in the North by herbalists. The bark affords an excellent topical application for painful tumors and piles, external inflammations, sore and inflamed eyes, &c. in cataplasm or poultice or wash. A tea is made with the leaves, and employed for many purposes, in amenorrhea, bowel complaints, pains in the sides, menstrual effusions, bleeding of the stomach, &c. In this last case, the chewed leaves, decoction of the bark or tea of the leaves, are all employed with great advantage. A strong infusion is given in injection for bowel complaints. It is said to be a mild yet efficient astringent in all cases, and a safe substitute of Statice, Myrica and Rubus.
Substitutes—Conium maculatum—Viburnum acerifolium and V. dentatum—Nymphea odorata—Myrica cerifera—Agrimonia Eupatorium—Geum Sp.—Rhus typhinum and R. glabrum—Statice Caroliniana and many other mild astringents.
Remarks—All the species of this genus have probably the same properties. In the north the H. parvifolia is equally used. It is distinguished by smaller leaves, pubescent beneath, hardly cordate at the base, undulate and sinuate. The shrub is smaller, with blossoms of a brighter yellow, and grows in mountains.
The H. macrophylla or Bigleaf Witch hazel, is only found in the Southern mountains, and will be known by its large, rough and round leaves.
Additions and corrections
45. HAMAMELIS VIRGINICA—Called Shemba by the Osage Indians, and used for ulcers, tumors, sores, &c. in poultice.
Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, 1828, was written by C. S. Rafinesque.