Witch hazel has always flustered me. As a kid, witch hazel-scented products reminded me of a suffocating aunt who delivered too many perfumed hugs. If I smelled it at a picnic or a church supper, my stomach would flip-flop. Even the name tormented me.
For decades, I avoided anything to do with witch hazel until an icy morning last October when I encountered a lone witch hazel shrub in full bloom. I was walking home from town, cutting across a sunny park when I noticed a plant bedecked with spidery blossoms. The petals shimmered in shades of mustard, lightly tinged with apricot and garnet.
When I first saw the blazing shrub, I thought of forsythia: happy yellow flowers on cold, bare branches. As I walked closer, the crunchy crystalline grass underfoot and the sparkly picnic tables reminded me that the season was all wrong.
A warm flash in a chilling landscape
Hours later, after the earth warmed, I returned to the park for a second look. Pollinators galore, enticed by the balmy sunshine, attended the ribbon-like blooms. Small flies, salmon-colored moths, and masses of honey bees with vivid pollen loads smothered the blossoms, buzzing and whining as they scrabbled through the yellow. Instead of the heavy odor I recalled from childhood, the air was scented with memories of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sassafras. Instantly, witch hazel pinged my radar and kindled my curiosity. I was instantly bewitched, you might say.
Since that illuminating moment in South Dakota, I’ve tried to learn why so many lists of pollinator plants overlook witch hazel. Many of my most trusted guides ignore it completely. I decided to pursue the question further after reading a brief passage in Lovell’s 1926 book, “Honey Plants of North America.” The passage says, “As it blooms so late and is abundant, it is helpful in preparing the bees for winter.” I never knew.1
Witch hazel is bewildering simply because it blooms so late in the year. The genus Hamamelis contains just five species, three native to eastern North America and two native to parts of Asia.
Our most common species, Hamamelis virginiana, often called common or American witch hazel, typically grows between 6 and 25 feet tall, but it can reach up to 40 feet in the right conditions. It has smooth gray bark and a rounded or irregular crown with a dense, twiggy growth habit. This is the species described for the most part in this article.
The leaves, which are alternate and simple with wavy or serrated margins, remain dark green throughout spring and summer. But come fall, they turn yellow, orange, or vermilion. According to numerous references, the shrub often sheds its cloak of showy leaves even before the first flowers appear.
The shrub occurs naturally throughout the eastern states from Maine to northern Florida, and as far west as Wisconsin and Texas. Witch hazel thrives in moderate temperatures and rainfall but, because it is easily adaptable to most North American climates, it has been planted widely throughout the country. The flowers occur from mid to late fall.
Note: Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis), native to Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, blooms from midwinter until spring. Big-leaf witch hazel, H. ovalis, appears in the southeastern states and blooms from December through February.
In addition, a number of cultivars now dot the landscape. Many of the specimens we see outside of witch hazel’s natural range have been bred for their striking colors.2 For the most part, the cultivars I’ve seen attract pollinators as readily as the originals.
Crazy crimped and curly flowers
The yellow flowers of witch hazel cluster on barren branches. They are often described as spindly, crepy, or crimped as if the petals were shredded, balled into a wad, then released. A welcome feast for late pollinators, the flowers bloom long after most flowering plants have sheltered for the winter, (or, as with H. vernalis or H. ovalis, well before most plants burst into bloom in spring). In addition, the blooms are long-lasting, kept fresh by cool days and cold nights as if they were stored in a florist’s walk-in.
Everything about witch hazel flowers is weird. The blossoms of common witch hazel, which appear from September through November, cluster together in groups of three. Each flower has four yellow petals and four short and squat stamens. Looking from the top down, the petals alternate with the green stamens.
Each of the stamens has an anther that produces lots of small-grained, ultra-sticky pollen. Pollination occurs when an insect transfers the pollen to a receptive stigma on another plant. In cold weather that lacks pollinators, some flowers are pollinated by the wind.
The ovary, which contains two ovules, sits at the base of the pistil. The ovary dries and becomes hard and tight like a nutshell, protecting the two dark seeds while they mature.
Created with pollinators in mind
Successful seed set in witch hazel is highly dependent on pollinators, which seems odd for something that blooms so late in the year. In fact, many of the older botanical references insist that witch hazel is wind pollinated, yet the flowers have all the insect-attracting accouterments we’ve learned to recognize. These include bright flowers, attractive odors, sticky pollen, sweet nectar, and accessible stamens and nectaries.
A wide assortment of insects is happy to pay a visit, for both nectar and pollen. In addition to bees, moths, and various flies, the plants attract beetles, parasitic wasps, gnats, leafhoppers, and flower flies. Recent research suggests that while witch hazel is self-fertile on a limited basis, insect pollination enhances seed production.
Low seed set and delayed fertilization
Even with all those visitors, seed set in witch hazel is rumored to be less than one percent. The low rate is likely related to the blooming season: If the days turn too cold for pollinators to fly, the plant will suffer. Likewise, the hours of sunlight are short and winds can be unpredictable and dangerous to most insects. Late-season blooming seems like risky business, but witch hazel has thrived in spite of the odds.
In addition to late flowering, witch hazel shows an unusual pattern of delayed fertilization. The plant may be hedging its bets against the cold weather, but for whatever reason, the ovules are not fertilized until the following May, roughly 5-7 months after pollination. The entire reproductive system simply enters cold storage until spring.
Once the weather warms in May, the ovules mature and fruits are formed. But seed ripening is still a long way off. Odd as it seems, last year’s seed will ripen just as the current year’s flowers open, long about September or October. That’s right, it takes a full year from pollination to fully ripe seeds.
Duck and cover: explosive seeds
Each ovary turns into a hard and dry woody capsule. The capsule contains two sections (or valves) and each section produces one or two shiny black seeds. As summer progresses, the capsule gets drier and harder until, with a loud pop, it explodes, sending the seeds up to 45 feet away from the parent plant.3 Like little missiles, the seeds rocket past the dripline of the parent shrub, giving them fresh terrain to grow along with plenty of sunlight and water.
When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, my grandfather had a detached ….