ITCH-HAZEL is not only a most interesting shrub in itself, but it has connected with it many legends. From its forked twigs were made the divining rods by which hidden springs of water or mines of precious metals were found, as it was firmly believed that the twig would turn in the hand when the one who held it passed over the spring or mine. At the present day, its fresh leaves and twigs are used in large quantities for the distilling of the healing extract so much in demand as a remedy for cuts and bruises and for chapped or sunburned skins. It is said that the Oneida Indians first taught the white people concerning its medicinal qualities.
The witch-hazel is a large shrub, usually from six to twelve feet high, although under very advantageous circumstances it has been known to take a tree-like form and attain a height of more than twenty feet. Its bark is very dark grayish brown, smooth, specked with little dots, which are the lenticels, or breathing-pores. If the season's growth has been rapid, the new twigs are lighter in color, but when stunted by drouth or poor soil, the new growth has a tint similar to the old. The wood is white, very tough and fibrous, with a pith or heart-wood of softer substance and yellow in color. The leaves are alternate, and the leaf buds appear at the tips of the season's twigs, while the blossoms grow at the axils of the leaves.
The witch-hazel leaf is nearly as broad as it is long, bluntly pointed at its tip, with a stem generally less than one-half inch in length. The sides are unequal in size and shape, and the edges are roughly scalloped. The veins are straight, are depressed on the upper side but very prominent beneath, and they are lighter in color than the rest of the leaf. Witch-hazel leaves are likely to be apartment houses for insects, especially the insects that make galls. Of these there are many species, each making a different shaped gall. One of the most common is a gall, shaped like a little horn or spur on the upper side of the leaf and having a tiny door opening on the under side of the leaf. If one of these snug little homes is torn open, it will be found occupied by a community of little aphids, or plant-lice.
The witch-hazel blossoms appear at the axil of a leaf or immediately above the scar from which a leaf has fallen, the season of bloom being so late that often the bush is bare of leaves and is clothed only with the yellow, fringe-like flowers. Usually the flowers are in clusters of three, but occasionally four or five can be found on the same very short stem. The calyx is four-lobed, the petals are four in number, shaped like tiny, yellow ribbons, about one-half inch long and not much wider than a coarse thread. In the bud, these petals are rolled inward in a close spiral, like a watch-spring, and are coiled so tightly that each bud is a solid little ball no larger than a bird-shot. There are four stamens lying between the petals, and between each two of these stamens is a little scale just opposite the petal. The anthers are most interesting. Each has two little doors which fly open, as if by magic springs, and throw out the pollen which clings to them. The pistil has two stigmas, which are joined above the two-celled seed-box, or ovary. The blossoms sometimes open in late September, but the greater number appear in October and November. They are more beautiful in November after the leaves have fallen, since these yellow, starry flowers seem to bring light and warmth into the landscape. After the petals fall, the calyx forms a beautiful little urn, holding the growing fruit.
The nuts seem to require a sharp frost to separate the closely joined parts; it requires a complete year to mature them. One of these nuts is about half an inch long and is covered with a velvety green outer husk, until the frost turns it brown; cutting through it discloses a yellowish white inner shell, which is as hard as bone; within this are the two brown seeds each ornamented with a white dot; note particularly that these seeds lie in close-fitting cells. The fruit, if looked at when the husk is opening, bears an odd resemblance to a grotesque monkey-like face with staring eyes. Frosty nights will open the husks, and the dry warmth of sunny days or of the heated schoolroom, will cause the edges of the cups which hold the seeds, to curve inward with such force as to send the seeds many feet away; ordinarily they are thrown from ten to twenty feet, but Hamilton Gibson records one actual measurement of forty-five feet. The children should note that the surface of the seeds is very polished and smooth, and the way they are discharged may be likened to that by which an orange seed is shot from between the fingers.
Leading thought—The witch-hazel blossoms during the autumn, and thus adds beauty to the landscape. It has an interesting mechanism by which it can shoot its seeds for a distance of many feet.
Method—This lesson divides naturally into two parts; a study of the way the seeds are distributed is fitted for the primary grades, and a study of the flower for more advanced grades. For the primary grades the lesson should begin by the gathering of the twigs which bear the fruit. These should be brought to the schoolroom—there to await results. Soon the seeds will be popping all over the schoolroom, and then the question as to how this is done, and why, may be made the topic of the lesson. For the study of the flower and the shrub itself, the work should begin in October when the blossoms are still in bud. As they expand they may be studied, a lens being necessary for observing the interesting little doors to the anthers.
1. Is the witch-hazel a shrub or a tree?
2. What is the color of the bark? Is it thick or thin, rough or smooth, dark or light, or marked with dots or lines? Is there any difference in color between the older wood and the young twigs? Is the wood tough or brittle? Dark or light in color?
3. Do the leaves grow opposite each other or alternate? On what part of the plant do the leaf buds grow?
4. What is the general shape of the leaf? Is it more pointed at the base or at the tip? Are the leaves regular in form, or larger on one side than the other? Are the edges entire, toothed, or wavy? Are the petioles short or long? Are the veins straight or branching? Are they prominent? Are the leaves of the same color on both sides?
5. Are there many queer-shaped little swellings on the leaf above and below? See how many of these you can find. Tell what you think they are.
6. Do the flowers grow singly or in clusters? What is the shape and color of the petals, and how many of them are there in each blossom? Describe the calyx. If there are any flower buds just opening, observe and describe the way the petals are folded within them.
7. How many stamens? With a lens observe the way the two little doors to the anther fly open; how is the pollen thrown out? What is the shape of the pistil? How many stigmas?
8. Does each individual flower have a stem or is there a common stem for a cluster of blossoms? Do the flowers grow at the tips or along the sides of the twigs? When do the witch-hazel flowers appear and how long do they last?
9. Make a drawing of a witch-hazel nut before it opens. What is the color of the outer husk when ripe? Cut into a closed nut and observe the extreme hardness and strength of the inner shell.
10. Where are the seeds situated? Can you see that the shell, when partially open, ready to throw out the seeds, resembles a queer little face? Describe the color and marking of the seeds; are they rough or smooth? How far have you known the witch-hazel to throw its seeds? Study the nut and try to discover how it throws the seeds so far.
References—Tree Book, Rogers; Our Northern Shrubs, Keeler; Familiar Trees and Their Leaves, Mathews; Field, Forest and Wayside Botany, Gray.