It is an extremely interesting plant – October and November’s child – and yet reminds me of the earliest spring. Its blossoms smell like spring – and by their color and as well as fragrance they belong to the saffron dawn of the year.
~Henry David Thoreau, 1851
I’ll be catching up with some past due posts over the next couple of weeks. Busy schedules don’t allow much time for thinking about posts, but then I think it is weird to post about something weeks or months after the experience. But, with the chilly and often gray days of winter upon us, it seems okay to show a flower, albeit a strange one, to brighten your day.
American witch hazel is an unusual shrub or small tree that stands out for its late bloom time, usually October through early December in these parts.
The yellow flowers have four twisted linear petals that spring from the branches looking like one of my bad hair days. The common name may have come from the Middle English wicke for lively – and wych, an old Anglo-Saxon word for bend. This may refer to the use of forked branches of this tree as dowsing or divining rods. According to folklore, one fork is held in each hand with the palms upward. The bottom or butt end of the “Y” is pointed skyward at an angle of about 45 degrees. As you walk back and forth over the area to be tested, the butt end of the stick is supposed to rotate or be attracted downward when you pass over a source of underground water. I need to cut a Y-branch and test this for myself.
The genus, Hamamelis, is from two Greek words, meaning “fruit” and “together with” or “at the same time.” This refers to the shrub’s unique feature of producing this year’s flowers as last year’s capsules, still on the twigs, are ripening and dispersing seeds. Seed capsules opened explosively, throwing seeds several feet, and the tossed seeds take two years to germinate. The species name, virginiana, is because it was first described from a specimen in Virginia.
Extracts from the leaves, bark, and twigs provide the aromatic salve called witch hazel, used as an astringent and an anti-inflammatory to soothe cuts and burns, as well as a number of other purposes. It is one of the few American medicinal plants approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The unusual plant was also one of the first New World plants to be adopted for ornamental use by European horticulturists.
The flowers are pollinated by a variety of small gnats, syrphid flies, moths, and other insects on days when weather is warm enough to allow flight. One day the last week of November, with the sun shining on one of the large witch hazels at work, the air was buzzing with the sound of many pollinators. I can see why Thoreau thought, How important then to the bees this late blossoming plant!
Look closely at a witch-hazel and you may see two distinctive galls, one on the leaves, one on the twigs, both caused by aphids:
The witch hazel leaf gall resembles a witch’s conical hat protruding from the upper leaf surface. It is caused by an aphid, Hormaphis hamamelidis.
The other gall, the spiny witch hazel gall, is similar in size (usually a bit larger) than the dried seed capsules, but adorned with small spines.
This gall is also caused by an aphid, Hamamelistes spinosus, that alternates between species of birch and witch-hazel to complete its life cycle. The new leaves on river birch often become distorted and appear crumpled when infested by these aphids (I have never seen this stage). Winged aphids that will migrate back to witch hazel, or wingless aphids called accessory females, develop inside these wrinkled leaves. The winged aphids migrate to witch hazel and give birth to a generation of wingless males and females. These wingless aphids mate, and the females lay eggs on witch hazel. The accessory females that remained on the birch tree produce additional generations of winged aphids that migrate to witch hazel later.
Overwintering eggs are laid on witch hazel in June and July. These eggs hatch the following spring and the new aphid nymphs crawl to the flower buds to feed. Feeding on the flower buds induces the plant to form a spiny gall. A second generation of aphids develops inside the galls, but then leaves and moves to birch to start the alternating plant life cycle again.
When I opened the one gall in late November, I saw both winged and wingless aphids along with white fuzzy tufts. There was also an odd-looking sphere…
This blob was somewhat translucent, white, about 1/4 inch across, and squishy. I gently pulled it out of the gall to photograph it and placed it on my table. I didn’t realize there was a droplet of water from the condensation on my water glass, and when the blob touched it, it literally vanished! I looked with a hand lens and there was nothing left but a very tiny bit of white fuzz on the table. If anyone has any thoughts as to what this mystery is, please let me know (my Google search turned up no clues).
Thoreau mentioned witch hazel in many of his writings, as it certainly would stand out to anyone spending much time in the woods with the approach of winter. He wrote, There is something witchlike in the appearance of witch hazel…with its irregular and angular spray and petals like furies’ hair, or small ribbon streamers. Its blossoming, too, at this irregular period, when other shrubs have lost their leaves, as well as blossoms, looks like witches’ craft. Certainly it blooms in no garden of man’s.
Though I don’t often disagree with Henry, I believe this shrub is certainly worthy of any native plant garden or landscape. Not only does it have beautiful fall foliage and strange, late-blooming flowers, it also has a fascinating cultural history, and some strange faunal associates. What more can you ask from a native plant? Be sure to look for it next year as cold weather approaches, or come by the North Carolina Botanical Garden to enjoy this beautiful and unusual native species.