Story by Virginia Barlow
Illustrations by Adelaide Tyrol
Witch hazel seems intent on distinguishing itself from all other shrubs, most
notably by flowering very, very, very late. If you’re unfamiliar with this species
and happen to come across a shrub entirely covered in bright yellow flowers
long after most deciduous trees have lost their leaves and forgotten their
flowers, you might wonder what the heck is going on. A close look reveals that
the flowers themselves – as well as the timing – are odd: each flower has four
long, crinkly, golden ribbon-like petals.
Nothing else around here flowers nearly this late, including the other five
plants in this genus that flower in spring, and this recklessness does
have a downside. After tracking over 40,000 witch hazel flowers in
Connecticut, scientists there concluded that fewer than one percent
of the showy blooms succeeded in setting fruit, and the odds didn’t
improve much when the scientists tried hand-pollinating them. The
pollen, although small-grained, is sticky, so wind doesn’t help at all.
And the flowers in the study didn’t self-pollinate, though researchers
in other parts of witch hazel’s range have known them to do this.
In the Connecticut study, 298 different insects visited the 40,000 flowers
that were tracked; most of them were flies, and the most common flies were
fungus gnats. Bees came to hazel flowers as well, plus the occasional beetle. But
no insects are so foolish as to specialize in witch hazel. Considering the scarcity
of cold-hardy insects, this huge overproduction of flowers is perhaps a good
strategy. Some of them get lucky.
Against the grain again, witch hazel does not go full speed ahead to
make seeds. Fertilization of the ovule, the step that usually occurs right after
pollination, does not take place until the following spring, just as the new
leaves are coming out.
Unlike the sharp-pointed teeth common on so many other wood shrubs,
the egg-shaped leaves of witch hazel have an uneven base and wavy, scalloped
edges. The upper surface of the leaf is a darker green than usual; the underside,
much more pale. In fall, the leaves turn yellow. The leaves grow on slender, flattened branches, and the resulting layered outline looks like something specially
created for the garden, a feature that is appealing in both summer and winter.
In the wild, witch hazel grows throughout eastern North America’s
deciduous forests. It’s most common in the shady understory where it may
grow to 25 feet, though usually it is much shorter. It’s most visible at the edges
of the forest, where it’s often found in clumps, a feature that may be related to
the way the seeds are distributed. Fruits from the previous autumn’s flowers
develop over the summer and mature in autumn. The roundish, hairy, tan seed
capsules stay through the winter and are a distinctive feature that will help you
identify witch hazel when it has none of those nice leaves.