Sunday, October 31, 2010

Witches in the Woods and all things Halloween

Tonight is Halloween one of my favorite holidays and only one of two holidays that I decorate my house for.

Every year, on October 1st I drag my "Halloween" box down from the attic and sort through the decorations that I've made and collected since I've lived here. There isn't a lot left in the box that my kids would remember. I'm decorating for me now, not a seven year-old and two year-old. Even so, I still don't like the large and scary theatrical decorations--big black rats, animated mummies and bloody body parts. Who wants to find a place to store them for the rest of the year?

What I do have is a glow- in-the-dark bowl that has seen a lot of candy but only one big trick-or- treater, some spider string lights, a porcelain pumpkin or two and a "Boo" sign. I have a cute quilted skeleton that I made from a pre-printed panel in the '80's when my kids were young and a framed counted cross-stitch witch that I made in the '90's.
All of my recent halloween-themed acquisitions, have been either spiders or witches. I'm not exactly sure why my draw to spiders, unless it's because I have a lot of respect for them as garden helpers. As for the witches, I believe in the everyday magic that surrounds us and witches have come to symbolize that for me.

As a matter of fact, if you find yourself out walking in the woods today, you may just come across a witch waiting for you. She's lurking near the edge of a trail, just under a large tree and partially hidden in the shadows. You have to look really carefully to see her. She hides particularly well among the yellow leaves of the trees above her but if you do find her, you'll see that her magic is particularly strong this week.

The witch I'm describing is (Hamamelis, virginiana L.). American Witch Hazel grows in most parts of the eastern US and Canada in moist woodlands. It's a tall understory shrub about ten to fifteen feet but sometimes can take on a tree form. The magic and mystery of witch hazel is that it blooms NOW, when most trees, and shrubs including witch hazel, itself, are shedding their leaves and going dormant. The flowers are pale yellow and spidery and cling to the bare branches. They're also lightly scented. The seed pods which form during the summer dry out by fall and eject the seeds by "shooting" them up to a distance of 30 feet. There are other species of witch hazel and a few hybrids some of which bloom later in winter or very early in spring, depending how you look at it, and give winter color and interest to the garden.

The aromatic twigs and bark of witch hazel are still distilled today for astringents, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. You probably have a bottle of witch hazel in your medicine cabinet. Native Americans were using witch hazel to treat bruises and skin ailments when the first settlers arrived and probably introduced the plant's medicinal uses to the them.
One of the most interesting bits of witch hazel folklore is that a forked branch can be used to "divine" water. Whether there is any scientific truth to this, I can't say, but I'd probably be much more skeptical if I hadn't seen it done.

Shortly after moving into my house our shallow well went dry and we had to have a new deep well drilled. The well driller who showed up cut a forked branch from a witch hazel bush and walked around my property for about half and hour with his stick bobbing up and down. "Yup", he said, "your best water's right here" pointing to a spot, "and it's 100 feet down". Witch Hazel was wrong that day. We got water at 85 ft.

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