The Magic of Witch Hazel: Flowering Shrub Springs to life in the fall

Often camouflaged against the turning leaves, each sweet-smelling flower has four slender, crinkled petals.

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

  • Witch hazel has a long history of medicinal use. Indigenous people and early Americans prized it as an all-purpose healing remedy. It was typically used as an astringent lotion to treat minor abrasions and skin irritations, but it was also used in teas and gastrointestinal remedies.
  • Witch hazel is still readily used as an over-the-counter item in most drugstores. A common treatment to relieve swelling, bleeding, itching and minor pain, medicated witch hazel pads are often used for hemorrhoids, bruises, insect bites and minor burns.
  • The shrub was also known for its supposed “water witching” powers. Forked limbs were used as dowsing or divining rods to find underground water, coal, tin and other lost items by early settlers and native people.
  • Its name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “wych,” which means to bend. This is probably in reference to its use as a divining rod in which the forked rod would bend toward water.
  • Asiatic witch hazels bloom in the spring instead of the fall. Both can be grown in shaded backyard gardens, but the American witch hazel is most beneficial for wildlife.

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