Tall, beautiful understory shrub/ small tree (ten to twenty feet high with an equal width) of mesic deciduous woods; late-blooming ribbon-like yellow flowers provide nectar for still-active autumn insects; found from Nova Scotia and Quebec south to Florida, west to Texas, and north to Minnesota.

Witch-hazelMany New Englanders tend to think of the end of the vegetable-growing season and the first frosts as a terminus in the garden. “Putting the garden to bed” is an oft-heard phrase reflecting the perception that plants are “done” for the year until seed packets re-appear in garden shops and hardware stores the following spring. The mantra is perennially intoned, though not quite as arbitrarily as it once was.

It is true that annuals, including much of what we grow in vegetable gardens, do conclude abruptly with the first sustained lower temperatures, shortened days, and weakened sunlight. In the case of some vegetables and flowers, we have spent the summer thwarting their unequivocal mission to produce seed and expire: the lettuces that bolt in July’s heat; or the cosmos and bachelor’s buttons that lose vigor if not remorselessly picked and deadheaded. The tomatoes we harvest at summer’s end represent the plant’s reproductive determinism since they contain seeds of another generation (some viable, some not).

But nature, in Maine, doesn’t bundle itself away as neatly as rolled up pea fences, stacked clay pots, or nested tomato frames. The garden is never “over”. There are always stirrings and evidence of a steady, if subdued pulse, even in deepest winter.

Autumn is the spooling of spring’s unspooling. Green leaves turn red, yellow, orange and russet before drifting earthward to provide the gift of shelter to some vertebrates, many invertebrates, and a protective layer and, ultimately, nutrition for soil and microorganisms. Resident (non-migratory) birds audibly keep the landscape company as it quiets. There is a crescendo of ripening fruit accompanied by a frenzy of avian and mammalian foraging, feasting and caching. Windy days are awash with the aeolian release of seeds and sometimes a pelting of acorns.

There are late blossoms in fields and woods. Ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), a September-blooming orchid startles, its short white spires conjured out of the rich colors of an old blueberry field. The dense golden lances of downy goldenrod (Solidago puberula) linger into October as most of its Asteraceae cousins evanesce into a froth of wind-borne seeds. Along salty shorelines seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) flames gold, its robust architectural stems resilient and defiant among tawny grasses that have long since performed their flowering duties.

In the understory of deciduous woods, while the viburnums and ilexes have already offered fruit to hungry birds, and chipmunks and squirrels have carried away all the hazelnuts from Corylus americana and C. spicata, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) finally comes into bloom. Witch-hazel is like a metronome throughout autumn; its long-blooming, spidery yellow flowers mark the shorter days and longer, colder nights, ticking off the flocks of migratory birds, the lighter mammalian traffic, the different pace of winter’s approach. And not only does witch-hazel flummox the landscape with its tardy cool-weather blossoms, but, almost uniquely it holds buds, flowers and fruit simultaneously.

Standing beneath a witch-hazel in late October is like taking a shower in golden light: the slightly dull green leaves of summer turn lime green, then deep yellow, often obscuring the flowers’ display. (A grail for some nurserymen is a Hamamelis virginiana that sheds its leaves before flowering begins, so that the blooms have no leafy competition. Hamamelis vernalis, a species confined to the Ozarks, blooms strongly in winter, well before its leaves appear.)

Witch-hazel is not a hazel: American hazelnuts (Corylus species) belong to the birch family, the Betulaceae. Thoreau called witch-hazels “witchy”, without explanation unless the use of branches for dousing was considered witchcraft, or the extensive applications of an extract made from witch-hazel’s bark seemed magical.[1] Witch-hazel’s leaves do resemble those of the hazelnuts and witch-alder (Fothergilla major) another member of the Hamamelidaceae. Each leaf is strongly veined and slightly wavy where the veins meet the leaf margins; the leaf bases are asymmetrical.

Witch-hazels are vase-shaped with emphatic branches reaching up and out to embrace sunlight in the partially shaded habitats and woods’ margins the prefer. Their forms, as well as anomalous flowering-time, were much admired by the English gardeners who received specimens from John Bartram in the 1730’s. The relatively smooth, greyish tan bark is mottled with lenticels, and is certainly conspicuous, if not a little spectral, in winter.

The insect associations of witch-hazel seem somewhat unchronicled, especially its pollinators. Gnats and flies are candidates, as are beetles since the flowers emit some fragrances when warmed by the ever-weakening autumnal sun. Flowers can persist for weeks, even several months, furling in the cold at night and unfurling with even a little sunny encouragement.

The seeds take months to develop. Fertilization is protracted and is incomplete until spring, “analogous to delayed implantation of fertilized ova in some mammals”.[2] The seed capsules are attractive: little tubs that look like dangling greenish brioches with their crowns ornamentally quartered. As the seeds within ripen, the chambering membranes contract to send the capsule’s contents shooting out some distance from the parent shrub. Henry David Thoreau wrote that

I heard in the night a snapping sound, and the fall of some small body on the floor from time to time. In the morning I found it was produced by the witch-hazel nuts on my desk springing open and casting their seeds quite across my chamber, hard and strong as these nuts were.[3]

A rather alarming-looking caterpillar (Datana ministra) sometimes can be found on witch-hazel leaves in nervous congregations. The caterpillars raise both heads and tails when agitated, and do look menacing as an aggregate. They are preyed upon by blue jays, robins and parasitic flies. There is a witch-hazel leafroller (Cacoccia roseaceana) and a witch-hazel leaf folder (Episimus argutanus). The leafroller folds the leaf from tip to base; the leaf folder works from side to side: two kinds of foliar origami.

Witch-hazels also host gall aphids including the picturesque spiny witch-hazel budgall aphid (Hamamalistes spinosus) on its twigs. These galls resemble spined fruit, but they are soft and pale-green in color. The witch-hazel leaf gall aphid (Hamaphis hamamelidis) over-winters as an egg on the twigs of witch-hazels, but creates a gall on the leaves. Part of its life cycle uses birches as an alternate host.

Studying and re-reading older wildflower books and field guides is instructive and sometimes highly entertaining. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century botanists were often partisans, unafraid to express their biases toward or against the plants they described. Mrs. William Starr Dana’s How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Guide to The Names, Haunts, and Habits of Our Common Wild Flowers, is never on my bookshelf, but usually close at hand to consult. Published in 1893, How to Know the Wild Flowers has been called the first field guide to North American plants. The book was widely and unexpectedly popular, selling out its first edition in only five days. A subsequent edition carried a “blurb” from Theodore Roosevelt. Mrs. Dana (1861-1952)- it is always Mrs. Dana, the Victorian lady addressed with formality and respect- wrote poetically, but with acumen and solid botany. Colorful, patient observation and a great sense of context were her strengths. She was not one of the “Little-ists”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s disparagement for those who simply collected and categorized- Here is part of Mrs. Dana’s entry for witch-hazel:

. . . the elusively fragrant, pale yellow blossoms of the witch-hazel need hardly be expected till well on in September, when its leaves have fluttered earthward and its fruit has ripened. Does the pleasure which we experience at the spring-like apparition of this leafless yellow-flowered shrub in the autumn woods arise from the same depraved taste which is gratified by strawberries at Christmas, I wonder? Or is it that in the midst of death we have a fore-taste of life, a prophecy of the great, yearly resurrection which even now we may anticipate?[4]

Hamamelis virginiana seed can be collected, in October, around the same time that flowers begin blooming. Since the seeds explode from the pods, gather them before the capsules open. Check plants regularly and as soon as one capsule begins to open, gather the desired amount of capsules and place in a closed paper bag. Seeds will pop in the bag for the next couple of days as they are expelled from the capsules. Seeds require alternating warmth and cold to germinate. Soak seeds in water overnight, plant outside in pots or a nursery bed, and wait until the second spring for germination. For faster results, mix the hydrated seeds with vermiculite in a zip lock bag and store at room temperature for two months, then sow seeds in a small pot and put outside for 3 months of winter vernalization. Germination should happen later that first spring.

By Pamela Johnson

[1] Harris, Marjorie. 2003. Botanica North America. New York: Harper Collins. The tannins in witch-hazel bark have been considered “anti-inflammatory . . . analgesic . . . anti-viral . . . ”, p.63.
[2] Eastman, John. 1992. Forest and Thicket. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books; pp.205-206.
[3] Thoreau, Henry David. 1998. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. N.Y.: Penguin Classics.
[4] Dana, Mrs. William Starr. 1895. How to Know the Wild Flowers. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

More Native Plant Profiles