April 07, 2020

Witch hazel blooms as garden lies dormant

In October, while most of Marjorie’s garden lies dormant, the common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is in full bloom. Where a few bright yellow leaves still hold fast to zigzag twigs, the flowers are hidden, but on naked twigs you can easily find the pale greenish-gold and slightly fragrant flowers. They are clustered in threes along the stem where leaves were once attached, each flower bearing four twisted and crinkled, ribbon-shaped petals. When temperatures are below freezing, the petals roll into tight curled balls, extending the life of the flower to ensure pollination when the temperature rises.

What would provoke a plant to flower so late in the year? Roger Swain, in his book “Saving Graces,” explains it this way:

“The unfurling of flowers this late in the year is no casual appearance, done for the enjoyment of winter walkers. Rather, the witch hazel is out to attract the attention of an equally untimely group of insects. Not butterflies, or bees, or even flies, but a group of winter moths. Some fifty species of owlet moths, in the family Noctuidae, are abroad at night in the dead of winter in northern hardwood forests. Their caterpillars feed on tree buds during early spring, then are quiescent all summer. The adults emerge in the fall, live out the winter, and die when they have laid their eggs.

“These dull-colored moths – black, brown, gray, or cream – wait out the cold, insulated by thick pile coats and by the layer of fallen leaves under which they hide. But on those sporadic winter nights when the temperature has risen to near freezing, they begin to shiver, vibrating their wings until they have raised their body temperature to the 85 degrees necessary for takeoff. Generally, the moths seek out the sap oozing from injured trunks and branches, but on late-autumn nights they gather at witch hazel, drawn to the nectar on its golden boughs.”

I have ventured into the garden on past October nights to witness this unique event, but my visits have yet to be rewarded.

Native from Canada to northern Florida, the common witch hazel is a small tree growing to no more than 20 feet in height; in Maine it is more often found as a large understory shrub both in the wild and the garden. Inconspicuous in the summer garden, it steals the show on blue-sky October mornings as its golden leaves reflect the angled sunlight. The flower display begins as the leaves start to turn and continues after they fall; in some years the flowers last until December.

The fruits of witch hazels, fuzzy two-beaked woody capsules, take a full year to ripen, with those from last year still on the branches with this year’s blooms. The capsules explode violently, ejecting the shiny, hard, black seeds more than 30 feet away from the parent plant. After expelling their seed, the open capsules remain on the plant for yet another year.

The witch hazel plant has a colorful history. American Indians began the practice of extracting the oil of witch hazel to use as a curative for all sorts of diseases, and early white settlers also believed in its medicinal power. In New England, aromatic extracts of the bark, twigs and leaves were prepared in alcohol for use as an antiseptic and gargle. When plant chemists eventually demonstrated that these preparations were essentially inert, any curative properties probably residing in the alcohol, a market developed for the use of the aromatic oils in after-shave lotions and toilet water. Do any of my readers remember these concoctions?

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to reesermanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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