Yes, there really is a native tree that blooms in late autumn or winter. Mine bloomed in November. It's really neat to see this Witch-hazel with small yellow flowers, when most of the other trees are losing their leaves. Jack Gulvin, who leads nature walks at Chautauqua Institution, introduced me to my first one. I finally bought one last spring from a nursery.
This is an understory tree that will reach 20 to 30 feet. My little tree is about four feet tall. This clump has about 10 crooked stems that are open at the top. It might live for 30 to 50 years. That's for the rest of my life and fine with me.
I was delighted that my tree already produced bright yellow flowers in November. Actually, books say that they could flower any time between September and December. The flowers are quite different. They have four, long, narrow, twisting petals. The leaves had already fallen off my tree, leaving clusters of three flowers with very short stalks attached to the twigs.
Photos by Jennifer Schlick
Above, the Witch-hazel tree produces winter flowers. At left are seed pods of the tree, top, and Witch-hazel blossoms.
I thought it was odd to find seedpods at the same time I was enjoying the yellow flowers. Earlier they were green. Then they turned orange-ish. They mature the year after they are formed from the flower, pop open, and shoot their two seeds each up to 20 feet!
Here's another mystery. I thought that flowers are pollinated by insects. Worker honeybees lead the other members of a hive to the source of food. But it is rare to see bees in November. However, certain flies have more tolerance for cold weather than bees. They have been seen walking around on flowers on warm fall days.
How do the flowers of Witch-hazel get pollinated if insects don't happen to be around? For one thing, the flowers have the capacity of self-pollinating. Then again, it helps to produce flowers for up to four months so that they are available to insects. There are small gnats, wasps and flies that do the job.
If you want to find Witch-hazel in the wild, where should you look? They like woods with mixed deciduous trees (those that lose leaves in the winter). Actually, favorites are oak and hickory trees. I planted mine near three old sugar maple trees. I hope that it will like it there.
Do I need to watch for insects that would harm my tree? Yes. There are two aphids that produce galls. The ones that you might find on a leaf look like singular teeth. Those that you would find on the twigs look like little burs. However, there are not enough insect pests to justify spraying the tree.
There are moth caterpillars that hide in a leaf rolled up around it. Three different kinds roll the leaves in different directions - from top down, sideways along veins, or in the shape of a cone. There is a moth larva that mines the leaves and leaves white trails. Other moths look like fishhooks in the tree. Also, the larva of the beautiful Promethia Moth feeds this.
Are there birds or mammals that will enjoy my tree's fruit? Not too many. Ruffed grouse and fox squirrels would. They would be welcome. Unfortunately, deer also like the twigs and leaves.
How have people used this tree? I had heard of witch hazel oil. The Native Americans used it for medicine and tea. When we were searching for a suitable place to drill a new well, a person came with a divining rod. I don't remember that it pointed to the ground any place. It was just an interesting experience to see the divining rod mad of witch hazel wood in use.
Don't confuse Witch-hazel with American Hazelnut, a member of the Birch family. Unlike the Witch-hazel, it is a shrub that can't tolerate shade. You would see it in edges of fields or in thickets. You can identify it by the catkins, hairy twigs, double-toothed leaves and uneven nut husks. The red female flowers bloom in the early spring just when the snow disappears, rather than in the early winter.
There are lots of Witch-hazels at the Jamestown Audubon. The trails are open daily from dawn to dusk and are great for cross-country skiing or snow-shoeing. The center's hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Mondays during the winter. Admission is free on Sundays and it is open from 1 to 4:30 p.m. We are on Riverside Road, between Warren and Jamestown. Come enjoy the snow!
Don't forget the Snowflake Festival on Feb. 1, 1 to 5 p.m. This is a great time to visit the trails and center and see what's going on, and visit with some friends as well. See you there!
Ann Beebe is a volunteer in charge of the gardens at the Audubon.