American Witch-Hazel

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
This American witch-hazel tree resides in the Grove-Street Cemetary, on the grave of Kingman Brewster, the seventeenth President of Yale University. The tree itself is small, with a short base and a number of stems and branches growing from that point. Its flowers are usually yellow in bloom, but sometimes shade towards orange and red.
Aaditya Tolappa, James Lee, and Jaja Liao
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Date of tree entry: 
2.69 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.91 m

The tree is not tall enough to measure DBH, so this is a measure of the base of the tree
The outer bark is light brown and overall relatively smooth in spite of having some scales. Meanwhile, the inner bark is reddish purple on the trunk. The bark is one of the components to create "witch hazel", which is distilled down to create the extract.
Twigs & branches
The branches start relatively thick at the base and branch out in consistent "V" shapes (which were used by Native Americans as divining rods to find water underground). They jut out at sharp angles from the base of the tree and quickly spread outwards (because the American witch-hazel has a spreading shape). After the initial branching, the ends of the branches become much thinner and do not exhibit the scaly qualities of the thicker portions. The thicker portions are around 30mm in diameter and the thinner portions are around 2mm in diameter.
One can see the veined nature of the leaves and the nodule from which the leaf is from. The size varies from 20-40 mm width and 50-60mm height, and the ends are spiky though the shape is an oval. We can assume from the veins within the leaves that the plant is a dicot, which also makes sense given its flower blossoming in 4 petals (see below)
Reproductive Structures
The flowers are fragrant with crumpled petals that persist long after most leaves drop in the winter. The flowers have four petals with four stamens, and are yellow with some rusty orange along the sides. We can see that the flowers come in clusters, where 2-4 blossoms cluster at the base. These flowers are pollinated by the wind to then form the fruit.
Though we could not find a fruit of the American Witch-Hazel, we know that the fruits are wooden capsules that explode with two black seeds at the apex. This seed mechanism is great because the seeds are propelled into the distance and the wind then carries the seed farther away to distance itself from the parent. The fruit and the flowers appear at the same time (thus the name Hamamelis, which means "same time" and "fruit"), though we could not find any of the capsules the last time we were present.
  • First Springtime Blossoms
  • Winter/Early Spring
  • Spring
  • Summer
The tree is distributed all around northern North America, extending eastward from the axis of Minnesota/Texas and westward from Nova Scotia/Florida. It is largely found in deciduous forests but sometimes pops up in backyard gardens, and it survives best in seasonal (East Coast) climates, where it has proliferated the most.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The history of the American witch-hazel dates back to Native Americans, who first discovered the healing properties of the tree. By using the roots, stems, and bark of the tree and boiling it down to a decoction, they created witch-hazel extract, which was used to treat swelling and burns. Puritan settlers then saw this decoction and appropriated it, slightly modifying it to create Pond’s Extract, a popular medicine that was used back in Europe to treat these same symptoms. Native Americans also used the bark of the tree to make tea.

The tree is now used for a wide variety of purposes, from lotion to toilet water to herbal remedies to eye washes to after shave. It is also used in medicines treating bug bites and poison ivy rashes. 

Another interesting tidbit of the history of the American witch-hazel comes from the branching nature of the branches creating a “Y” shape. As a result, the branches of the tree were used by Native Americans as divining rods, locating water underground. 

The American witch-hazel is a deciduous tree that sheds its leaves in the winter. The flowers are a rusty yellow and are pollinated by wind. The leaves turn yellow and brown before falling off.
Media and Arts

The American Witch-Hazel Song

Comin’ back to the graveyard
You just look so sa-a-ad
You’ve been standing in the winter chill
And I think you look so ma-a-ad
Your branches look so empty baby
They look really, really scary
You make the graveyard creepier
So I guess you’re ugly
Then one day
I see it - your first leaf

You really aren’t that bad of a tree, whoa oh oh oh
You really aren’t that bad of a tree, I know, whoa oh oh oh x3

So April hit and the sun got warmer
And you start to look beautiful
Your flowers are beginning to bloom
And they make me feel so musical
The birds are chirpin’ in those branches baby
The squirrels are all around
Your blossoms are just adorable
They make me feel so sound
Witch-Hazel, how majestic you can be

You really are pretty cool for a tree, whoa oh oh oh
You really are pretty cool for a tree, I know, whoa oh oh oh x4

Now I must leave you
Cause I am a senior
It’s been a really awesome semester,
It feels like such a blur
That branch
Those leaves
I feel the bliss
Witch-Hazel, it’s you I’ll def’-nitely miss

It doesn’t get any better than this, whoa oh oh oh
You really are lovely, you witch - Hazel, whoa oh oh oh

It doesn’t get any better than this, I know – whoa oh ohoh

You really are lovely, you witch – Hazel, whoa oh oh oh