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Diane Blanks, Blue Ridge Mountain Views #9: Of Witch Hazel and Leather Britches

Blue Ridge Mountain Views

“Of Witch Hazel and Leather Britches”


I will buy and plant Anything that blooms in the winter, and because I’ve always been sort of fascinated by witch hazel, I ordered a little start from an online native plant nursery a couple of years back. True gardeners hold that no plant is in its correct spot until it’s been moved three times. Well, the witch hazel is now in the right place because I just moved it for the third time.


According to the USDA Forest Service:

American witch hazel posses some interesting lore and uses. The most interesting use has been the use of forked limbs as dowsing or divining rods. Early European settles observed Native Americans using American witch hazel to find underground sources of water. This activity is probably where the common name witch hazel came from. “Wicke” is the Middle English for “lively’ and “wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” American witch hazel was probably called a Wicke Hazel by early white settlers because the dowsing end of the forked branch would bend when underground water was detected by the dowser. This practice had a widespread use by American settlers and then was exported back to Europe. Dowsing became an established feature of well-digging into the 20th century.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe Pye Weed. Photo by Diane Blanks

The witch hazel sprig I planted in the shady back bed grew a bit, but didn’t seem to be thriving, so this spring I moved it farther down near the black walnut tree where it would get more sun to see how it would do.


I had always wanted a black walnut. My stepfather had a huge tree in the back yard when he and my mother married. In the fall, we would gather the nuts, let the husks dry out some, and then we’d hammer them through a piece of board in which Claude had drilled a hole about the size of an average nut, husking them efficiently without spraying too much of the juice (which stains; it’s the base of Old English Scratch Remover, as a matter of fact.) Then we’d crack the nuts with the hammer and pick out the nut meats, which were wonderful in pumpkin bread, pound cake and such.


While living in Georgia, I had mailordered a couple of walnut saplings and had them delivered to my son, who was then living up here. But neither of them made it. When I first got back home to Granny’s house, though, I was surprised to see a fair-sized black walnuttree growing on the lot line, evidently planted by a forgetful squirrel. I took it as a sign.


Walnuts are tricky to plant near, though. They will kill many kinds of plants planted near them, as the trees possess a toxic substance known as juglone, particularly in the roots. Some plants, shrubs and understory trees aren’t bothered by it, but it will quickly kill others. I’m planting near it by trial and error. If a shrub starts showing yellowed leaves after a while, I move it away from the walnut. So far I haven’t lost anything, which is good. But as it turned out, I had to move the witch hazel again this summer, and now it’s thriving away from the walnut in a place that gets a bit of sun. Who knows, I may eventually take up dowsing.



My grandmother often reminisced fondly about the leather britches of her childhood. Leather britches are green beans, strung on cotton string and hung to dry. They droop as they dry, remotely resembling a pair of pants. Midway through the winter, they’re taken down, soaked, rinsed and cooked. In a burst of nostalgia one year, Granny strung some white half-runner beans, threading them up whole on white string with a needle and thread, and hung them out on the screen porch to dry, where the air could circulate around them.


Later in the winter, she took them off the strings, rinsed them, added fresh water and put them on the stove. When they boiled, she poured off the water and added more fresh .She put in some of the dried red pepper she’d also strung and dried, along with a piece of fatback and some salt, and then cooked them. They cooked and plumped up, but remained a somewhat distressing muddy brown color. We all stood around peering dubiously into the pot and then gingerly tasted them, discovering that, though they were surely edible, they had an odd, musty taste to them.

I imagine they were more of a treat back in the days before canning and freezing produce became possible, when the winter’s food supply was either stored whole in a cool place (potatoes, cabbages,apples and such), pickled, salted or dried. Either that, or Granny misremembered how to dry and cook them, it being more than fifty years since she’d tried making them.


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