Inside: Witch hazel is an often overlooked pollinator plant. Depending on the species you have, it blooms very late in fall or very early in spring, just when bees need it most.
Table of contents
- A warm flash in a chilling landscape
- The botanical tells of a late-bloomer
- Crazy crimped and curly flowers
- Flowers created with pollinators in mind
- Low seed set and delayed fertilization
- Duck and cover: witch hazel seeds explode
- Nectar and pollen characteristics
- Witch hazel as a garden plant
- What’s in the name?
- A note about medicinal uses
- Save a plant, save a bee
Witch hazel has always flustered me. As a kid, witch hazel-scented products reminded me of a suffocating aunt who delivered too many perfumed hugs. If I smelled it at a picnic or a church supper, my stomach would flip-flop. Even the name tormented me.
For decades, I avoided anything to do with witch hazel until an icy morning last October when I encountered a lone witch hazel shrub in full bloom. I was walking home from town, cutting across a sunny park when I noticed a plant bedecked with spidery blossoms. The petals shimmered in shades of mustard lightly tinged with apricot and garnet.
When I first saw the blazing shrub, I thought of forsythia: happy yellow flowers on cold, bare branches. As I walked closer, the crunchy crystalline grass underfoot and the sparkly picnic tables reminded me that the season was all wrong.
Hours later, after the earth warmed, I returned to the park for a second look. Pollinators galore, enticed by the balmy sunshine, attended the ribbon-like blooms. Small flies, salmon-colored moths, and masses of honey bees with vivid pollen loads smothered the blossoms, buzzing and whining as they scrabbled through the yellow. Instead of the heavy odor I recalled from childhood, the air was scented with memories of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sassafras. Instantly, witch hazel pinged my radar and kindled my curiosity. I was instantly bewitched, you might say.
Since that illuminating moment in South Dakota, I’ve tried to learn why so many lists of pollinator plants overlook witch hazel. Many of my most trusted guides ignore it completely. I decided to pursue the question further after reading a brief passage in Lovell’s 1926 book, Honey Plants of North America. The passage says, “As it blooms so late and is abundant, it is helpful in preparing the bees for winter.” I never knew.(1)
The botanical tells of a late-bloomer
Witch hazel is bewildering simply because it blooms so late in the year. The genus Hamamelis contains just five species, three native to eastern North America and two native to parts of Asia.
Our most common species, Hamamelis virginiana, often called common or American witch hazel, typically grows between 6 and 25 feet tall, but it can reach up to 40 feet in the right conditions. It has smooth gray bark and a rounded or irregular crown with a dense, twiggy growth habit.
The leaves, which are alternate and simple with wavy or serrated margins, remain dark green throughout spring and summer. But come fall, they turn yellow, orange, or vermilion. According to numerous references, the shrub often sheds its cloak of showy leaves even before the first flowers appear.
The shrub occurs naturally throughout the eastern states from Maine to northern Florida, and as far west as Wisconsin and Texas. Witch hazel thrives in moderate temperatures and rainfall but, because it is easily adaptable to most North American climates, it has been planted widely throughout the country. The flowers occur from mid to late fall.
Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis), native to Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas blooms from midwinter until spring. Big-leaf witch hazel, H. ovalis, appears in the southeastern states and blooms from December through February.
In addition, a number of cultivars now dot the landscape. Many of the specimens we see outside of witch hazel’s natural range have been bred for their striking colors.(2) For the most part, the cultivars I’ve seen attract pollinators as readily as the originals.
The spindly yellow flowers of witch hazel cluster on barren branches. They are often described as spindly, crepy, or crimped as if the petals were shredded, balled into a wad, then released. A welcome feast for late pollinators, the flowers bloom long after most flowering plants have sheltered for the winter. In addition, the blooms are long-lasting, kept fresh by cool days and cold nights as if they were stored in a florist’s walk-in.
Everything about witch hazel flowers is weird. The blossoms of common witch hazel, which appear from September through November, cluster together in groups of three. Each flower has four yellow petals and four short and squat stamens. Looking from the top down, the petals alternate with the green stamens.
Each of the stamens has an anther that produces lots of small-grained, ultra-sticky pollen. Pollination occurs when an insect transfers the pollen to a receptive stigma on another plant. In cold weather that lacks pollinators, some flowers are pollinated by the wind.
The ovary, which contains two ovules, sits at the base of the pistil. The ovary dries and becomes hard and tight like a nutshell, protecting the two dark seeds while they mature.
Flowers created with pollinators in mind
Successful seedset in witch hazel is highly dependent on pollinators, which seems odd for something that blooms so late in the year. In fact, many of the older botanical references insist that witch hazel is wind pollinated, yet the flowers have all the insect-attracting accouterments we’ve learned to recognize. These include bright flowers, attractive odors, sticky pollen, sweet nectar, and accessible stamens and nectaries.
A wide assortment of insects is happy to pay a visit, both for nectar and pollen. In addition to bees, moths, and various flies, the plants attract beetles, parasitic wasps, gnats, leafhoppers, and flower flies. Recent research suggests that while witch hazel is self-fertile on a limited basis, insect pollination enhances seed production.
Even with all those visitors, seedset in witch hazel is rumored to be less than one percent. The low rate is likely related to the blooming season: If the days turn too cold for pollinators to fly, the plant will suffer. Likewise, the hours of sunlight are short and winds can be unpredictable and dangerous to most insects. Late-season blooming seems like risky business, but witch hazel has thrived in spite of the odds.
In addition to late flowering, witch hazel shows an unusual pattern of delayed fertilization. The plant may be hedging its bets against the cold weather, but for whatever reason, the ovules are not fertilized until the following May, roughly 5-7 months after pollination. The entire reproductive system simply enters cold storage until spring.
Once the weather warms in May, the ovules mature and fruits are formed. But seed ripening is still a long way off. Odd as it seems, last year’s seed will ripen just as the current year’s flowers open, long about September or October. That’s right, it takes a full year from pollination to fully ripe seeds.
Duck and cover: witch hazel seeds explode
Each ovary turns into a hard and dry woody capsule. The capsule contains two sections (or valves) and each section produces one or two shiny black seeds. As summer progresses, the capsule gets drier and harder until, with a loud pop, it explodes, sending the seeds up to 45 feet away from the parent plant.(3) Like little missiles, the seeds rocket past the dripline of the parent shrub, giving them fresh terrain to grow along with plenty of sunlight and water.
When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, my grandfather had a detached garage with a dirt floor. I loved to climb the steep stairs and explore the loft where he stored wondrous things I wasn’t allowed to touch.
For some reason, he kept a cast-iron shoe last that he used for cracking black walnuts. One day, alone in the loft, I rifled through feed bags full of nuts and seeds and discovered some small nut-like capsules that I thought I could crack.
I centered one on the last, but as I turned to get the hammer, the capsule fell to the floor and exploded. A projectile grazed my arm and I was sure I was dead. From that day forward, I knew the place was haunted, and it was weeks before I timidly returned. Much later, I discovered more of those explosive devices beneath a hedgerow, still clueless about their identity.
Nectar and pollen characteristics
Based on the array of insects it attracts on a warm day, witch hazel is an excellent pollinator plant. However, fall- and winter-blooming varieties are unlikely to attract many bee species. Most bees are solitary and will not forage that late in the year, although a few halictids (sweat bees) may show up for a treat.
Honey bees are the exception. Because a honey bee colony does not hibernate, the workers are free to collect on those rare warm days in late fall and early winter. Indeed, I’ve read many accounts of honey bees foraging heavily on the flowers, collecting both pollen and nectar.
The pollen is fairly sweet, in a range that satisfies hungry insects, and the pollen grains are small and sticky. The fragrance varies widely between species and cultivars, ranging from spicy to negligible. The flowers smell nothing like the odor I remember from my oversensitive childhood.
In addition, common witch hazel is one of the host plants for the endangered spring azure butterfly, Celastrina ladon. The butterfly larvae (caterpillars) consume the leaves in early spring.
Witch hazel is a hardy plant that can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions, including full sun or partial shade and moist or dry soils. It is also tolerant of urban pollution, salt, and clay soils. It can be propagated by seed but is more commonly propagated by layering, rooting of softwood cuttings, or hardwood cuttings.
Whether witch hazel is a suitable garden plant is up for debate. Those who admire the late blossoms welcome the blazing yellow flowers that adorn a monochrome landscape. They also enjoy the wildlife that attends the flowers and seed capsules. But other people describe the flowers as scraggly, untamed, wild, shabby, or bedraggled.
Because last year’s seeds and the current year’s flowers coincide, a long list of wildlife arrives along with the pollinators. Wild turkeys, bobwhite, ruffed grouse, cardinals, jays, chickadees, and titmice all take a turn at a productive shrub. These are joined by finches, sparrows, nuthatches, and thrushes. Mammals, including deer, rabbits, and squirrels, join the feast as well.
What’s in the name?
The plant family Hamamelidaceae contains all the witch hazels along with many other deciduous trees and shrubs ranging from North and Central America to East Asia, Africa, and Australia. In addition to the three North American species of witch hazel, China and Japan each have one native, H. mollis and H. japonica, respectively.
The genus name Hamamelis means “together with fruit,” referring to the odd appearance of last year’s fruit with the current year’s flowers. Because of its unusual flowering schedule, witch hazel is often called winterbloom.
The common name “witch hazel” is harder to trace. Some say the word witch derives from the Middle English wiche meaning bendable or pliant. This name dates back to the days of “water-witching” when a pliable branch was considered useful for finding underground water. Since many thought the plant was a true hazel, the name “witching hazel” was applied.
In North America, witch hazel is often associated with the sweetgum tree, genus Liquidambar. For decades, both were in the same family, but recently sweetgum was given its own family, Altingiaceae. Similar to witch hazel, these small trees are native to areas of east Asia and North America.(4)
Because I’m not into herbal medicine, I won’t offer opinions on the dozens of herbal concoctions that feature witch hazel. I’ve seen recipes for treating an entire encyclopedia’s worth of ailments, all centered around this one plant. Practitioners make tinctures, infusions, elixirs, potions, and brews, all specially formulated to cure what ails you or your livestock.
But there’s one thing I will share.
My dad was a pharmaceutical researcher. Although he couldn’t tell an oxalis from an oak, he marveled over the unique and diverse chemical compounds in plants and how they formed the basis for modern medicines. For example, digoxin and digitoxin from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) are used to treat heart conditions, morphine from the bread-seed poppy (Papavar somniferum) is used for pain, and quinine from the cinchona tree (Cinchona calisaya) is used against malaria. Even aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) originated from willow bark.
He believed that the extinction of a single species of plant was an incalculable loss to humanity because that plant may have held a small pharmacy of unrealized drugs. I can’t even imagine what he would think of a recent estimate from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) that suggests up to 68 percent of plant species are currently threatened with extinction. The loss is mind-boggling.
As beekeepers, we understand that bees need plants, plants need bees, and we need both. Because we deal with plants and bees daily, we are uniquely positioned to spread the word and perhaps contribute to saving some small part of the planet.
So go ahead. Plant a witch hazel or some other off-the-wall plant for the bees. There’s never been a more important time to give our struggling pollinators a leg up (or six). Late-blooming witch hazel in your backyard may be just the thing they need.
Honey Bee Suite
- Lovell, JH. 1926. Honey Plants of North America. Medina, Ohio: The A.I. Root Company
- Brickell, C. and Cathey, H.M. 2004. A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.
- Loewer, P. 1995. Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History & Lore. New York: Macmillan
- Hylander, C.J. 1956. The World of Plant Life, 2nd Ed. London: The Macmillan Company
- Center for Biological Diversity: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/ elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/