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Witch Hazel tree


In the greenhouse of the Botanical Garden a wondering crowd surrounds the orange tree laden at the same time with flowers and ripening fruit. It is a startling phenomenon, setting aside the rules that govern the staid trees of orchards and gardens. Just once do I recall among familiar trees, a lapse that reminds me of the habit of the orange tree. A cluster of pale apple blossoms appeared one autumn on a slender shoot that came out of the thick trunk when the rest of the tree was burdened with ripening apples. It was a nine days' wonder in the neighborhood.

Among forest trees, as conventional as orchard trees in their observance of calendar days, there is one little tree that is utterly erratic. It is the Witch Hazel's practice to bloom in the fall while it is scattering its ripened seeds. We may lose our faith in the witch Hazel twig as a divining rod. We may scorn to rub Pond's Extract on our bruises. But we cannot deny that, stripped of all the virtues with which tradition has invested it, the tree still has an eerie way with it; and we can never quite get out from under the spell it casts upon us. In the late winter, the witch Hazel stands leaning against the sturdy trunks of other trees, its limbs bare or shivering in a scant covering of faded yellow leaves. The empty capsules open their yawning mouths and one would scarcely notice the tiny cup and ball and its four shriveled ribbons with which the twigs are thickly set. One does not botanize in the woods in winter. It must be dull for the Witch Hazel in the spring.

All about it the trees hang out their blossoms, and it is not one of them. It stands aside while the great flower pageant passes, from the aspens which lead, their furry tassels flushing red against the sky of March, till the last white petals of the hawthorn shake down upon the ground. Only green leaves clothe the barrenness of the little Witch Hazel tree and its empty pods fall, one by one. But if it feels the least bit lonesome it gives no outward sign. Its broad leaves spread in the sun, and its shoots lengthen apace. Under the foliage is a secret that is not to be revealed to the careless nor to the indifferent.

The tree has larger and dearer interests than the making of leaves. Green buds as round as marbles cluster on the bases of leafy side spurs. The cup and balls so small in winter now assert themselves as gray green buttons, among the tiny buds. On some fine autumn morning when the frost is in the air and leaves are fluttering to their final rst, the red squirrel, hiding chestnuts at the root of a tree, is startled by a sharp twinge on the ear, and a skipping near him on the leafy forest carpet that is dangerously suggestive of squirrel shot. He need not hurry away so fast.

It is only the Witch Hazel bombarding him with its shiny black seeds. The frost and the sun are behind the guns. They have at last sprung the trigger that long held captive the tiny projectiles. Snap! and the capsule flies wide open. By the parting of the lips the seeds are broken loose from their attachment and thrown out with surprising force. The lining of the cells is believed to shorten and contribute to the force that throws the seed out. A friend of mine interested herself in finding out how far these seeds went. She chose an isolated tree and spread white muslin under it for some yards in four directions. The most remote of the many seeds she caught were eighteen feet from the base of the tree!

If there were witches in these days I could be sure I saw them here in their own proper places in the witch Hazel tree, laughing in glee at the squirrel's discomfiture, tossing their yellow cap-strings, cackling and showing their toothless gums without reserve in a grin both wide and deep. Come back, Mr. Bushy-tail, and take up your task without fear. It is only the Witch Hazel's little scheme to replenish the earth by colonizing new territory, - a mode of seed dispersal that ever widens the circle of the tree's distribution.

The most cheerful things in the late autumn woods are the elfin blossoms of the witch Hazel. On those cold days when rains come down and wash the color out of the October landscape, when the leaves fall shivering from the trees, and Nature seems at last to have lost heart and given up the game, - then it is that we humans find it hardest to be cheerful. One look at the Witch Hazel works like a charm upon us. The rain seems only to brighten the yellow of its petals. Frost comes. They are turned into crepe, and curl up into ringlets that dance in the winds. They are satisfied with just any sort of weather. The pods are older. They seem to take life more seriously. They close their lips tightly when it rains. But let the sun come out and dry them, and they fly open one after another. It is as if they burst into laughter, in which the onlooker joins in
spite of himself.

A suggestion
Why don't you bring in a witch Hazel and plant it in your shrubbery border? Look among the following facts and see if you can find a good reason why you neglect this little tree.

1. It may easily be transplanted from the wilds to the garden.
2. It grows the second year from seed, or is propagated by layers. It does best in somewhat moist, peaty or sandy soil.
3. It has handsome foliage wllich turns yellow in the fall.
4. Its flowering is prolonged for weeks through the season when all other shrubs are out of bloom.
5. Its flowers and fruits are beautiful and exceptionally interesting.
6. At all seasons of the year the shrub is a delightful botanical study as well as an ornament to any shrubbery border.