Native Witch Hazel: The Last Flower

By Ted Watt Gazette Contributing Writer

Every fall when I go into the woods I look for the flowers of our native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. The scarlet leaves of the red maples are already littering the forest floor and sugar maple leaves are starting to drop. The comforts of summer are giving way to the coming of the cold. And witch hazel is just beginning its annual journey of reproduction.

The long thin branches hold their gradually yellowing leaves along with tiny spherical buds. As the precious days of October pass, these buds open into small flowers with four one-inch-long thread-like pale yellow petals. The flowers have a fleeting scent; some days I can smell it strongly and others I have trouble detecting it at all. The golden leaves eventually fall as the shrub continues its preparation for the coming winter. But the flowers last on, even as most of the leaves drop from the surrounding trees, spidery star-bursts of pale yellow among the November grays and browns.

How can witch hazel bloom on into late autumn? How could this be adaptive? So often I’ve been amazed to see it blooming so late. My theory is that, although there are not many pollinators flying this late in the season, the ones that are don’t have many options, so they seek the witch hazel for its pollen and nectar, and in the process they carry pollen grains from one flower to the next.

And here the story goes cold—literally. The dropping temperatures postpone actual fertilization. The pollen grains sit dormant on the pistil, waiting. They wait five months, all winter, until warmer temperatures arrive in the spring. The pollen tubes then develop in the spring, the ovaries are fertilized and the seeds develop throughout the summer. Odd, half-inch, oblong pods, each housing two small black, shiny seeds, are ripe for dissemination in the autumn. Because of the long delay in actual fertilization, witch hazel is our only shrub that bears ripe seeds and fresh flowers at the same time. The seeds have taken a full year to develop from pollination. What a seemingly patient strategy for surviving winter!

The witch hazel’s seed dispersal strategy recalls a story. Loren Eiseley, a renowned anthropologist and naturalist, wrote about being awakened in the middle of one night, certain there was someone moving about in his home. He got up and searched the house, checking the locks and windows, and found nothing. He returned to bed, fell asleep and was awakened again. Concerned, perhaps frightened, he searched more carefully around the house. Finally he discovered, on the living room carpet, small shiny black seeds. The witch hazel branches he had cut to bring some autumn color indoors also bore the seed pods. And the pods were exploding with the low humidity in his home and shooting their seeds across the room. A good seed dissemination strategy, used by a number of plants, including jewelweed, cranesbill and violets—and, in this case, one that made enough noise to jolt someone out of a sound sleep!

Several commercial enterprises make use of witch hazel: Dickinson’s, Thayers, Humphreys and Full Spectrum among others. The mildly astringent alcohol suspension is made with extracts from the trunks. Scattered in moist depressions and swamp edges, this large, multi-trunked shrub is common throughout our area. To recover the oils and other compounds, the trunks are cut to the ground and chipped up, then the witch hazel essences are distilled out, condensed and mixed with alcohol to give the characteristically scented astringent lotion. I use it occasionally as an after-shave and find its gentle scent both invigorating and comforting.

There are a number of insects associated with witch hazel. An interesting example found in the fall is the spiny witch hazel gall, caused by an aphid, Hamamelistes spinosus. The female chooses a flower bud in which to lay her eggs. The flower aborts and a ¾-inch long, spiny, pineapple-shaped growth takes its place. Inside the gall the aphids develop into winged adults, eventually leaving the gall and flying to birch trees to continue their life cycle. Look for the galls near the branch tips. They are not numerous in any stand of witch hazel but with diligent searching you’re likely to find them.

I feel privileged to recognize witch hazel in my wanderings and am gladdened each autumn when I discover its late-autumn flowers again. Knowing some of the details of its life history and connections with other creatures in our forests reminds me to take time to savor the complex web of life that supports all of us through the seasons.

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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