Bud’s View: American witch-hazel flowers brighten winter landscape
There is a natural schedule of signature color changes that our native trees follow each fall season. We are all familiar with the vivid autumn colors.
The flowers that trees produce, however, bloom from early spring, like the tulip tree, to the unusual witch-hazel, which blooms from October often into March.
Witch-hazel is also known in some areas as snapping hazelnut, spotted alder and winter-bloom. They grow throughout northeast and southeast North America from Florida to Nova Scotia and the Great Lakes to Texas.
Since my lengthy hospital stay and another one during the recent holidays, my time spent outside has become minimal, especially when the cold north winds make the air feel much colder than the actual temperature. When the blustery northwest winds hit my bare neck, my time outdoors becomes even shorter.
Although the calendar shows that winter arrived less than a month ago (officially Dec. 21), we’ve experienced a roller coaster ride of weather patterns. As I work on this column we’ve gone from yesterday’s single digit temperatures to a predicted high in the low 50s tomorrow.
Witch-hazel occasionally grows tall enough to be considered a tree. It has a slow to moderate growth cycle, but generally reaches heights of only 12 to 15 feet with a rare maximum height of 30 feet.
They are often found growing in the same general area as sassafras, flowering dogwood and blueberry bushes. Our witch-hazel keeps company with several dogwoods that have grown from seeds scattered by the birds and squirrels and a few sassafras trees.
The unusual characteristic about the witch-hazel is that the flowers begin blooming as the shrub’s leaves change to yellow and drop to the ground in fall. It is the last flowering plant of the season.
The one-inch long crinkled ribbon-like flower petals look like small yellow spiders clinging to the twigs. Although they are difficult to spot while the yellow leaves remain, the new blooms stand out like a distant yellow mist once the witch-hazel branches lose their seasonal grip.
In some areas the pompom like flowers do not appear until December, giving the plant another nickname, “Epiphany Tree.” Epiphany, also known as Three King’s Day, is a Christian religion celebration held at about the same time when the witch-hazel flowers are blooming.
Witch-hazels are under-story plants, i.e., they grow beneath the taller trees. Several crooked branches, averaging about two to six inches in diameter, grow and spread out from a single root system.
More compact, nursery-raised witch-hazels are sold and planted along with evergreens to add their yellow flower color to the drab browns and grays of the winter landscape. The flowers are fragrant and are pollinated by a moth.
The alternate, coarsely-toothed leaves vary from three to five inches long with a width of about three inches. The leaves are lopsided. One side does not match up with the other side. A woody capsule containing two shiny black seeds replaces the flower.
It takes one year for the seeds to ripen. When the seeds ripen, they are ejected with an accompanying loud snap. Seeds may travel as far as 30 feet from the exploding seed capsule.
Th witch-hazel, a native plant, was taken back to England in the mid-1700s, where it became a popular garden plant. Native Americans valued the plant for medicinal reasons using an extract from the inner bark to cure eye and skin inflammations. The plant is still used today in the production of many cosmetics and medicines. Look for witch-hazel as an ingredient on labels of various over the counter external lotions and ointments.
The common name, witch-hazel, probably was derived from the use of the plant’s branches for “divining rods” (forked branches that were used to find water in dowsing). Similar hazel tree branches were used to find water in Europe.
I estimate that the witch-hazel at the north end of our property to be about 16 feet high, spreading to about 20 feet in diameter. It is presently sporting the yellow spider-like flowers, thus adding a bit of color to the edge of the backyard.
Look for the yellow flowers of the witch-hazel during your future outdoor pursuits.
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