The woods are transforming from many shades of summer green to glorious autumn reds, oranges and yellows. But leaves are not the only thing adding color to our brag-worthy New England forests. One source of yellow is the flowers of the Common Witch-hazel.
The flowers don't get much attention because, though colorful, they are not particularly showy. Less than an inch in length, the stringy petals dangle from the branches of this shrub like tiny bits of thin spaghetti. What makes them special is that they are blooming now. That's why this plant is also called Winterbloom.
Most trees and shrubs put out their blossoms in the spring, but witch-hazel is a true late bloomer.
The fact that the flowers are out now and can often be seen as late as November is a bonus for insects. After most other flowers have turned brown or been killed by frost, the nectar and pollen of the witch-hazel still provides nutrients to the lingering gnats and flies. When the leaves have fallen, the flowers are more noticeable and able to attract the pollinators that provide a service to the plant in exchange for the food they receive.
Once the flowers are pollinated, nut-like seed capsules will develop. These persist on the branches for nearly a year; ripening the following summer and early fall. The simultaneous presence of both flowers and fruit gave rise to the plant's scientific name: Hamemelis virginiana.
On warm, dry days the woody seed capsule will begin to shrink and ultimately pop open, scattering two black, shiny seeds anywhere from 20 to 40 feet away. If you happen to be at the right place, at the right time, you might hear the popping sound of these pods as they explode and disperse the seeds. This sound is the origin of another alternative common name: Snapping Hazelnut.
You can tell if you've missed that experience, because the open nuts will remain on the branches for up to another year. Expelled seeds that are not eaten by ruffed grouse, wild turkeys or squirrels may germinate and grow into new plants.
As plants of the under-story, being neither tree nor ground cover, witch-hazel shrubs are often overlooked. They usually grow in clumps along the edge of woods or in moist areas and reach 10 to 25 feet in height. Identification when the leaves are present is quite easy because the rounded, wavy-edged leaves are asymmetrical at the base. So if you fold them in half the long way, they don't match up on either side of the stem.
When the leaves are absent, look for "naked" buds as a characteristic feature. Unlike with most trees and shrubs, witch-hazel buds are not covered with scales for protection.
Though often ignored in modern times, the many unique features of witch-hazel and its multiple uses made it a well-known plant historically. Many tribes of American Indians collected the twigs, bark and leaves and boiled them to extract the sap.
The sap was used for various medicinal purposes such as treating skin irritations, soothing aching muscles, and treating sore eyes, colds and toothaches, and to reduce inflammation.
This knowledge was passed on to early settlers, and they patented witch-hazel extract as a commercial medicine. The extract is still produced in Connecticut today and sold in drug stores and pharmacies across the country.
Another former use of this plant is said to have provided the origin of its most common name. The old English word "wyche" means flexible. The branches are pliable, and settlers used them as dowsing rods or "witching sticks" when they were seeking underground water.
Whatever name you choose to call it, you'll be rewarded if you find this plant. After the brilliance of the autumn foliage fades and we are left with the drabness of November, the lingering yellow flowers of witch-hazel can bring a touch of brightness and a ray of hope to the otherwise dreary landscape. So enjoy the fall foliage of October, but keep an eye out for the friendliest witch of the autumn.