Late and Loud

Witch Hazel goes to seed with a bang.

Late and Loud

You know the drill in fall: leaf piles, frosty mornings, wool sweaters, pumpkin pies. The trees have gone bare, our gardens fallow, and the encroaching signs of winter no longer can be denied.

Yet it is now, just when it seems we must surrender ourselves to the cold and the dark that our native common witch hazel—Hamamelis virginiana—bursts into bloom arriving like a late postcard from departed summer. Its subtly fragrant, slender, fringe-like petals are a bright yellow—a confetti of color against the earth-drab backdrop of the season.

H. virginiana is a deciduous understory shrub with gently arching branches and a late-to-the-party habit. Typically, the plants begin blooming in Virginia around the end of October or in early November according to Kim Strader, assistant curator of native plants at the State Arboretum of Virginia in Boyce. “You will find them in areas along the edges of woods and along the sides of roads throughout the state,” says Strader. In a mild year, the flowers may linger for weeks.

That’s all very fine and well of course—who doesn’t like a lovely panorama of buttercup-colored blooms just when you’re digging out the Thanksgiving gravy boat? But witch hazel is not done with its surprises. It goes to seed with a bang—or, to put it more precisely, a very loud “pop!” audible at some distance—as the seed pods explode, flinging the seeds as far as 25 feet. On a stroll through a hamamelis-heavy woodland on a quiet, late autumn day, says Strader, you can sometimes hear the pods popping around you.

One sure place to find witch hazel is Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, which is part of the Fairfax County parks system. Located, in fact, on “Witch Hazel Road,” Green Spring is home to more than 150 live plants representing six different species (not all of them native) of witch hazel. Among these, H. virginiana is the only fall-bloomer; the others flower in mid to late winter, early harbingers of the spring to come.

H. virginiana also makes an attractive landscaping plant for your own garden. Although a slow grower, it can reach heights of 15 to 20 feet or more, and though it prefers moist soil, once established it is agreeably drought tolerant.

Even if you’re not much for plants, however, and the closest you come to a walk in the woods is ordering from L.L. Bean, chances are you still have encountered witch hazel—not the plant itself, that is, but the extract of its bark, bottled up and available for sale on the shelf of your local pharmacy. Otherwise known as “hamamelis water,” medicine-cabinet witch hazel is an astringent that is supposed to offer soothing, anti-inflammatory relief to minor skin irritations; as it happens, witch hazel also is the active ingredient in hemorrhoid pads. Whether or not the plant has magical healing properties, the “witch” in witch hazel probably doesn’t owe its origins to the eye-of-newt-tongue-of-frog meaning of the word. Nor was the name likely derived from a curious biological coincidence: the witch hazel leaf plays host to an aphid which, in chewing on the leaf, somehow induces that leaf to build a gall around the aphid that is shaped—get this!—remarkably like a pointy witch’s hat.

The “witch” then, is no witch at all. Brenda Skarphol, curatorial horticulturist at Green Spring Gardens, offers the explanation written on the educational signage there: “The unusual name ‘witch’ probably refers to an Anglo-Saxon word (wice or wic) meaning bendable (as in wicker furniture).”

Interestingly, however, the pliant forked branches of witch hazel are a traditional tool for practitioners of the art of dowsing—also known as “water witching.” Which brings us full circle to H. virginiana, blooming right about now, somewhere in a woodland or garden near you.

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