By Frances Lamberts
An exhilarating sight at January’s end: A few new, bright yellow blossoms had come out on a twig of the American Witch-hazel, botanic name Hamamelis virginiana, which had bloomed throughout November and into December. Simultaneously in another flower border, its more southern companion, the Ozark or Spring Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), was showered in hundreds of deep red flowers.
For these native woody plants of the Appalachian region, in the form of shrubs or small, understory trees, late fall and the winter months are the time to bloom – to “steal the limelight” as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden says of them.
This time of blossoming, benefiting many insects when all other trees and plants are in winter sleep, is only one of the witch-hazels’ wondrous characteristics. Another is the enormous massing of their faintly fragrant flowers, fifteen or more on a one-inch length of a twig perhaps. Though small, with four string-like, twisted petals, this massing makes the flowers quite showy since also occurring on still leaf-bare branches or, for the American witch-hazel, after its colorful fall foliage has fallen.
The literature cites “frequent insect visitors” as pollinators for the flowers. They include small native and late-flying honeybees, gnats and beetles, hover and other flies, and a number of night-flying moths. Studies of these at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in the woods at Maryville College document many “winter moth” species’ ability to fly at near freezing temperatures, through extended shivering and trapping heat within their thorax muscles. Moths being major prey for bats, these species are thought to have evolved their body warm-up-for-flying mechanism to take advantage of the bats’ hibernation schedule – and the witch-hazel plants and these moths to have synchronized their evolution in that regard.
The witch-hazel’s leaves also serve as food for the larvae of the Spring Azure butterfly and those of an endangered moth.
Its fruits, which stay on the branches for a whole year, are another of the plant’s special traits. The tan-colored, small seed capsules explode in fall and propel out their few, black seeds. As described by naturalist Edwin Way Teale, these “shoot through the air as far as forty feet.” If they escape being winter food for songbirds or small mammals, they will then take another two years before germinating to start new life.
Indeed, the witch-hazel native plants hold many charms – beautiful flower displays in winter for gardeners and food for birds and many pollinating insects.