Bedford Audubon Society

A Northern Westchester & Eastern Putnam Counties, New York
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Celebrating 98 Years of Conservation 1913-2011

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The Last Flowers of the Season
By Carol Gracie

Witch-hazel flowers in December
Witch-hazel flowers in December

A walk through the woods on a cold, late autumn day yields little in the way of color with the possible exception of some scattered red leaves remaining on blueberry bushes or, perhaps, a colorful mushroom. What a surprise, then, to come across a tall shrub full of yellow star-like flowers brightening the otherwise subdued palette of the season. The flowers are those of our native witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, the last plant to bloom in the Northeastern forest. Unlike the fall-blooming asters and goldenrods that color the fields in yellows and purples in October, witch-hazel grows in forested areas and, thus, is only seen by those who venture into the woods at this time of year. Some witch-hazel flowers may open as early as the beginning of October, before the bright yellow leaves have fallen, making them difficult to see. More commonly flowering begins once the leaves have fallen, and then they are a surprise and a delight to observe. Individual shrubs may be found flowering as late as December when an early snowfall might dust the flowers.

It’s thought that our local witch-hazel evolved this late-blooming strategy in order to take advantage of pollinators at a time of year when there’s little else for them to eat. Four thin, ribbon-like, yellow petals attract bees and, especially, flies to the flowers where they can obtain small amounts of nectar and ample, sticky pollen as a reward. However, as may be expected in November and December, few flying insects remain, and the temperature must be warm enough for them to fly in order for the flowers to get pollinated. Thus, the plants produce few fruits; in the northern part of the range, only about one percent of the flowers result in a mature fruit.

Witch-hazel with last year's fruit
Witch-hazel flowers with last year's fruit

Although pollination of witch-hazel occurs in the fall, fertilization of the ovules doesn’t occur until the following spring. It is then that the fruit develops, and it remains on the plant into the next flowering season. The scientific name, Hamamelis, means “together” + “fruit” referring to the fact that the flowers and fruits are present on the plant at the same time. The woody capsules mature at about the time that the following year’s flowers open. The capsules split open explosively ejecting the two shiny black seeds an average of three and a half meters from the mother plant. The sound of the seeds hitting the dry leaves on the forest floor is one explanation for the common name, witch-hazel. The mysterious sound would startle people who then attributed it to witchcraft. An alternate hypothesis is that the name arose from the fact that branches of witch-hazel were often used as divining rods to locate underground sources of water. More likely, a corruption of the Old English “wych,” meaning supple or bendable, as applied to the wych elm, was subsequently applied to our native witch-hazel because of its equally pliable branches.

The Native American use of the plant for medicinal purposes was adopted by the early colonists, and by the mid-1800s the commercial production of the astringent witch-hazel had begun in Essex, Connecticut. T. N. Dickinson, a retired Baptist minister, with his two sons and the collaboration of Dr. Elmer Whittenmore, began distilling witch-hazel bark and marketing it as a treatment for skin irritations, boils, bruises, and other ailments. All bark and leaves used in the manufacture of witch-hazel are harvested from wild plants in two geographical areas, Connecticut, along with adjacent parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and the southern Appalachians. Upon the death of Dickinson, Sr., his two sons inherited the business, and it remained under family control until quite recently. Dickinson’s Witch-hazel was, and still is, sold throughout the world.

A second species of witch-hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, is restricted to the Ozark Plateau in Arkansas, Missouri, and eastern Oklahoma. The wider ranging H. virginiana often grows closely associated with it. Unlike our eastern species, H. vernalis flowers in late winter to early spring. Its flowers vary in color from yellow to red and have a spicy aroma. It is sometimes planted as an ornamental in our area to provide a much needed early touch of color in the winter landscape. More frequently planted are two Asian species, Chinese witch-hazel, H. mollis, with somewhat showier, very fragrant yellow flowers, and Japanese witch-hazel, H. japonica, both of which also flower in late winter. The flowers of all four species can survive freezing temperatures and even encasement in ice.

Japanese Witch-hazel flowers in ice
Japanese Witch-hazel flowers in ice

Among interesting things to observe when looking at witch-hazel are the cone-shaped structures often found on the upper surface of the leaves in summer. These are galls formed by the leaf in response to a chemical secreted by aphids that then live and produce young within the galls. The aphid life cycle is quite complicated with several generations feeding on birch trees before the sixth generation returns to the witch-hazel to begin the cycle anew.

You may also notice witch-hazel leaves rolled into cylinders. This is the work of the larva of the witch-hazel leaf-roller moth, a rather small, indistinct caterpillar that takes shelter within the rolled leaves.

Witch-hazel may be recognized by its zigzag branch tips, the presence of capsules throughout the year, and the wavy-margined leaves that have an asymmetrical base.

See More of Carol Gracie's Photos of Witch-Hazel

Winter Ice and Snow Photos by Carol Gracie
Winter Evergreen Photos by Carol Gracie
Winter Wildflowers—Article and Images by Carol Gracie

Photos Courtesy of and Copyright © by Carol Gracie

Copyright © 2006 Bedford Audubon Society
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