It’s fall, and while most flowers are fading, those of the American witch hazel are just starting to bloom. Witch hazel is the latest flowering shrub, with flowers appearing in October. Often camouflaged against the turning leaves, each sweet-smelling flower has four slender, crinkled petals.
Why does this plant bloom when others go dormant this time of year? Like other flowering plants, witch hazel needs insects for cross-pollination. Witch hazel has a long flowering period, and takes advantage of whatever insects are still active this time of year. It relies on hardy late-season insects such as flies, gnats and moths to visit and transfer pollen. Perhaps by being the “only show in town,” this eliminates competition from other plants. If this late-flowering strategy fails to attract any pollinators, plants may also self-pollinate if necessary.
Once pollinated, seed development is delayed until next spring. Seeds develop inside a woody seed capsule that usually persist on the plant year-round. When the capsules dry, they split open to disperse the seeds. Like little cannonballs, these pressurized seeds are forcefully ejected 10-20 feet away to ensure the new seedling has space to grow.
This large shade-tolerant shrub is common in the forest understory and can reach 20 feet high. Its crooked stems grow from the same base, often creating loose thickets in which wildlife may seek shelter. White-tailed deer browse its branches while ruffed grouse and gray squirrels eat the buds and flowers. Rolled-up leaves are evidence of leaf roller moths and witch hat-shaped growths are signs of aphids taking up residence.
As the leaves drift to the ground and fade, remember to keep an eye out for the petite spider-shaped yellow flowers of witch hazel. Smell the lemony scent of its blooms and spend a moment in silence to listen for the pitter-patter of seeds dropping on the dry leaves. Witch hazel is truly a bewitching sight if you stop to notice its subtle features.
Casting A Spell