Witch Hazel: Fall Flowering Bush

Karl VonBerg Monday, 13 November 2017

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Last week I talked about a recent late fall hike where I found some surprising color amid the brown. On that hike there was another burst of color I spotted, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was checking out a field that had been brush-hogged to keep bushes and trees from growing up and taking over. Except for the oak trees, the fall leaves had almost all turned color and fallen.

In that sea of brown, I was surprised by a yellow wall. Along one field edge I saw a row of lemon-colored blossoms on several otherwise bare bushes.

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It took me a minute to realize what I was looking at: witch hazel. Even though we’re well into fall, these witch hazel shrubs were sporting some beautiful blossoms.

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Witch hazel blossoms have a pretty color, but they are a little odd-looking. Each flower is made up of 4 narrow, half- to three-quarter-inch long petals. The flowers appear in October, and they can linger on the bush well into November.

If you come across a witch hazel in bloom, give the flowers a sniff. They have a spicy fragrance. I’ve found I can smell it better on calm, dry, sunny days.

Witch hazel has some interesting roots for its names. Take its Latin genus name: Hamamelis. It means "together with fruit." Witch hazel gets that name because last year’s flowers mature into fruit capsules at the same time that this year’s flowers are blooming. Each capsule contains 2 seeds. When the plant is ready to release those seeds, the capsule splits open. The movement sends the seeds hurtling through the air up to 30 feet away.

As for the “witch” part, it doesn’t mean what you probably think it does. It doesn’t refer to someone in a pointy hat or a character in Harry Potter. It comes from the Old English “wice,” which means “pliant” or “bendable.” The plant’s flexible branches led some folks in England to use hazel twigs for dowsing or divining rods.

Want to see and smell the witch hazel for yourself? Go for a walk this month in an old, overgrown field or a forest with a lot of space between trees. Keep your eyes peeled for 12- to 15-foot high bushes that have lost their leaves yet have a yellow color. With luck you will find this fun fall plant blooming a final burst of color before winter.

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