witch hazel, common name for some members of the Hamamelidaceae, a family of trees and shrubs found mostly in Asia. The family includes the large genus ( Corylopsis ) of winter hazels, and the witch hazels (genus Hamamelis ), sweet gums ( Liquidambar ), and witch elders ( Fothergilla ), the latter three genera represented by species in E North America as well as in Asia. The American witch hazel ( H. virginiana ) is a fall-blooming shrub or small tree found E of the Rockies. Its ripening fruits discharge their seeds by a characteristic explosive action, often shooting them several feet. The plant seems to have been named for the resemblance of its leaves to those of the hazel, and the witch hazel branch, like that of the hazel, has been used as a divining rod. The name "witch hazel" is applied also to an astringent liniment obtained from the leaves and bark of the plant. The sweet gums are characterized by their star-shaped leaves, their unusually brilliant and varied autumn coloring, and their round fruits with hornlike projections. The hard wood is used for cabinetmaking and for various building purposes. The bark, especially that of Asian species, is a source of storax or styrax, a fragrant balsam used in expectorants and perfumes and sometimes in chewing gum. Witch hazel is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Hamamelidales, family Hamamelidaceae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.