The witch hazel is blooming on Witch Hazel Ridge. It’s one of the first signs of spring, my 63rd. It’s a welcome sight, whatever cruel ironies may come with April. We’ve had a short but very hard winter this year. Warm spells in January, February, March. Ten years ago, when we first moved in, we would have been seduced by the warm. Planted tomatoes or something. But we’ve “larned better” as our neighbors might say. Do not plant before Mother’s Day is the high mountains rule of thumb. It’s excellent advice, and we’ve tossed many an ice-wilted plant into the woods as proof.
But the witch hazel is blooming now. Wikipedia tells me there are five species: three in North America, one in China, and one in Japan. I wonder if they’re blooming in Nippon, about to face the cruelest April ever.
I’ve also learned that witch hazel was once commonly called “winterbloom,” and that it’s usually a shrub, rarely a small tree, and even more rarely over 8 meters tall. The one outside our kitchen window looks to be about 25 feet. Tall and spindly and determined.
When we first thought about buying 10 acres of raw land at the head of this old moonshiner’s hollow, the mountain man who would eventually sell it to us had already named his 80+ acre parcel after the early-flowering tree. I think he liked its history as a medicinal plant prized by Native Americans for its astrigency. He’s an implant, like ourselves, came from Kentucky about 30 years ago. I believe his dad was an accountant for a small company. You’d never know he wasn’t native (unless you’ve always lived here), given his fierce Bluto beard and rough ways.
The first day we met him he sized us up and introduced himself as a “Zen Baptist.” One of the local gentry in my monthly poker game, who made his fortune jackhammering rocks into gravel and selling dynamite to the good old boys around here, snorted when I mentioned our first mountain man friend. “Jake the Snake,” he said dismissively. I wouldn’t dismiss him so quickly. Jake (given name Jerome) is a fascinatin’ character. More stories about him to come.
The “witch” in witch hazel, according to the world’s favorite crowd-sourced free encyclopedia, derives from an Old English word “wice” – meaning “pliant” or “bendable.” That’s the sort of thing Jake would know — and a good thing to be in this lovely and harsh place that Floridians rush to in the summer when their swamps start steaming — and flee from in October when the first flake falls.
In the winter, 50-60 mph winds from the northeast are not uncommon up here at 3600 feet. (They reach 180 mph atop nearby Grandfather Mountain.) I can sit here at our kitchen table and watch the poplars and elms, the arbor vitae, and our tall but skinny witch hazel bend and sway in the wind. When it’s all done, they stand placidly, knowing sun will come. And then the wind again.