Virgula divina. (Diving Rods)
"Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
Gather'd with Vowes and Sacrifice,
And (borne about) will strangely nod
To hidden Treasure where it lies;
Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline."
-Sam Shepard 1651
It's been a little while. Things have been dreamed, feasts have been eaten and winter is taking its hold down here in our corner of the world. While walking along one of our favorite places on the Laurel River, my lovely husband pointed out an odd tree and asked me what it was. It was bare branched like many other November trees, but it was covered in yellow, spidery blossoms. It was witch hazel, (Hamamelis virginiana L.)
Witch hazel is one of our amazing native medicinals here in Appalachia, and has a few unique properties that I think really make it a true witches tree. Not only does it look witchy with its small, gnarly shape, but it tells you unabashedly about its magic by where and how it grows. It tends to grow along waterways and in moist, shaded areas of the Appalachian forests. It even ejects its seeds, sometimes audibly, through a process called ballistichory. It also flowers in late fall, early winter, going against the seemingly preferred methods of normal plant life cycles. If that isn't mystical, I don't know what is.
The connections between witch hazel and water go deeper than preferred habitat. Witch hazel rods and forked twigs have been used by "water witches" for a very long time to locate underground wells and water sources. Because the witch hazel is native to the United States, its use as a divining rod is a uniquely North American magical practice.
The American Society of Dowser's describes the history of searching for things with forked sticks as having begun in pre-history throughout the world, but as far as modern usage, the first time the word "dowsing" was used,
" ...it seemingly made its first official appearance in 1650 in an essay written by the famous English Philosopher John Locke whose noble writings inspired the framers of our own Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. In his essay, Locke wrote that by the use of the dowsing rod, one could devise or discover water and precious minerals (such as gold & silver and mineral ore) Locke has appropriated his phrase from the long dead English west country language of Cornwall - where in Cornish Dewsys meant "Goddess", and "Rhod" meant tree branch, and from which he "coined" the phrase - Dowsing Rod."
It had been written about prior, even by Martin Luther himself, "Dowsing as practiced today may have originated in Germany during the 15th century, when it was used in attempts to find metals. As early as 1518 Martin Luther listed dowsing for metals as an act that broke the first commandment (i.e., as occultism)."
Even though it seems dowsing was practiced by Europeans since the dark ages, there is conflicting information about whether or not European settlers learned to use the witch hazel as a divining rod from the Mohegan people, or if the Mogehans learned it from the Europeans. Either way, it was and still is used by many, both Native and Settler, as the twig of choice to locate water.
It appears that the term "witch hazel" was also used before ascribing it to the Hamamelis shrub in North America. The word "witch" appeared as "wych" around the 1540's and was generally taken to mean "having plaint stems". It began as a common name for European plants. It is seen in Shakespeare's Henry VIII describing a wood one can make a bow out of, which was probably the hornbeam (Corylus), another tree with pliable branches. Hamamelis was first equated with witch hazel around 1760 to describe the American plant.
So to dig a little deeper into the early American historical aspects of this witchy shrub, we see that it was also known as "pistacio". The seeds were considered edible (they are) and many tribes used them as food, and also as sacred beads (as in the case of the Menomini peoples).
It was also fashioned into little crosses and hung around the house for protection by colonists. This reminded me of when my husband and I recently went to England and saw all the little Rowan crosses made with red thread. The little inscription next to them in their glass case at the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford said they were carried about in the pocket by a local man for protection. So it seems plausible the two practices are related.
Witch hazel's folkloric uses are amazingly interesting, but its medicinal uses are what makes it one of the few plants that almost every person has heard of, and it is still available in regular grocery stores and pharmacies for use today. The Cherokee used the infusion (twigs and leaves boiled in water) for bruises, tuberculosis, colds and sore throats. The Iroquois used it for dysentery, asthma, cholera, arthritis, kidney problems and to purify the blood. Many other Native peoples used witch hazel for similar things, namely celebrating its astringent properties. Colonists used it for menstrual troubles as well.
Today, we know that witch hazel's astringent tannins are what makes it a useful medicine. It is used externally for inflamed skin, piles, hemorrhoids insect bites, poison ivy and other inflammatory conditions in the forms of lotions made from distilled twigs, leaves and bark in alcohol. It has been used internally for similar purposes, namely stopping internal bleeding and bloody dysentery. I myself use it as a post face wash lotion and poison ivy remedy, and I think it is quite effective.
Since the opening of the Dickinson witch hazel distillery in 1866 in Connecticut, witch hazel has continued to be an affordable medicine in the cabinets of those inclined to trust home remedies and simple cures. If you live in the Southeast, go out and see if you can spot the splash of bright yellow among the trees and witness the unique beauty that is Hamamelis virginiana in flower, in winter.
Anthony Cavender. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia. 2003.
Daniel F. Austin. Florida Ethnobotany. 2004.
J.T. Garrett.The Cherokee Herbal. 2003.
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