witch hazel

Witch hazel flowers and seed pods.

A walk through the woods in winter can seem eerily supernatural. Most of the time it is simply tricks of the mind, but do not be fooled.

There are witches in our forests.

While they aren’t exactly the cauldron-stirring type, witch hazels are strange enough in their blooming habits that they deserve their somewhat spooky name.

There are multiple species of witch hazel worldwide. However, American witch hazel is the only one found natively in our area. This shrub/small understory tree is common along the east coast, normally in established forest environments with part shade and rich soil. They tend to remain relatively subtle until they bloom, at a time when most other plants are already tucked in for the winter.

Winterbloom is another common name for witch hazel, and that’s just what they do. In order to reduce pollination competition with other plants, and perhaps to avoid hybridizing with other closely related species, witch hazels have developed the capacity to bloom at times most other plants have deemed ludicrous.

The majority of witch hazels tend to bloom in late winter and early spring, giving late January its first burst of color as the weather begins to thaw. Chinese witch hazel, commonly used in landscaping, and the spring witch hazel found mostly to our west are both examples of this.

The American witch hazels found in and around our mountains are outliers to this, and instead tend to bloom in late fall, normally late October into November-December. Witch hazels are some of the last and first flowers that emerge in the cold, and while this strategy removes 99 percent of their plant competitors during pollination, it also cuts down on the actual pollinators able to reach the flowers in such inclement weather.

Science was largely clueless on the pollinators of witch hazel for hundreds of years. When the weather is warm enough, native bees, ants and flies will visit the blooms and pollinate somewhat effectively.

Being survivors above all else, witch hazels do not bank their pollination solely on the arrival of warm weather, however. After careful observation, scientists have discovered that they instead rely on night-time pollinators to pick up most of the slack.

It is now generally accepted that small owlet moths are the prime pollinators of witch hazel, and they do so with some incredibly effective warming regiments. These insects are able to raise their body temperature as much as 50 degrees by shivering in order to fly in the cold, dark nights of late fall and early spring. Their generated heat is rapidly lost as they fly, so most long distance trips require multiple shiver stops in order to keep themselves up to temperature. Despite this monumental effort, owlet moths succeed in effectively pollinating witch hazels in weather that would make all but the hardiest insects hastily retreat into their burrows.

Because of the strains that cold weather places upon the plant as they bloom, witch hazels have also developed the ability to hold off on completely developing their seeds until it is warmer. If you look closely at a witch hazel bloom, you will actually notice pods from the previous year coming to full fruition alongside new flowers.

Witch hazel is one of the few plants known that blooms, disperses seeds, and goes dormant at basically the same time.

Since there are almost no animals roaming the woods at that time, witch hazels also take it upon themselves to spread their own seeds.

A late fall woodland stroll will most likely feature the sounds of their seed pods bursting open, flinging their contents up to 40 feet away and making a distinct popping noise.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.