As the maples put on the fireworks above, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) buds are ready to pop open their spindly, yellow flowers. Given a basic understanding of seasonal growth, it is curious that this plant is flowering in the fall. Is this some invasive plant, out of sync with this ecosystem?
Witch-hazel is where it belongs, but has an unusual adaptation to attract pollinators. To avoid competition spring ephemeral plants go through their complete reproductive cycle before leaf out, and witch-hazel has taken a similar approach. While the ephemerals jump the gun and offer food to the early emerging insects, witch-hazel in the forest until the asters and the goldenrods have said their piece, and then puts on a show for the pollinators. By this time the availability of nectar is limited and moths are only too happy to oblige. Witch-hazel is a more southerly species, so up in New England you find it beneath canopy trees of a similar heritage. These oaks and hickories warm themselves on south-facing mountain slopes, in sheltered coves, and along temperate valleys.
This shrub offers qualities beyond its fragrant bloom that explain the origin of its name. Traditionally used for locating water beneath the ground by Native Americans, witch-hazel diving rods were even exported to Europe. “Wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend”.
As autumn emerges around us, admire the brilliant hues our hardwoods showcase, but remember to drop your gaze to mid canopy and seek the spindly celebration of fall around you.
Kat is a second year Ecological Planning student constantly seeking answers to the mysteries found within the natural world. Being an FNEP student has exponentially increased her number of questions, and actually answered a handful of them.