The native witch hazel plant produces yellow flowers during late fall

The native witch hazel plant produces yellow flowers during late fall

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around in Michigan, you might think we’ve seen the last of the plants flowering outdoors until spring — but that’s not necessarily the case.

American witch hazel, also known as common witch hazel, is a native plant in our area that surprises us with its blooms in late fall through December. Yellow witch hazel flowers are often spotted in the woods when all other trees and shrubs are completely bare.

They can be seen flowering even in the snow we sometimes get in November. I remember when I was a kid, I would see them along the edge of the woods near our house and wonder: Are those funny yellow things on those bushes some kind of flower?

Its bright yellow flowers appear in clusters along the branches. Each flower has four thin, flat, wavy petals about three-quarters of an inch long. While the flowers of the native variety of witch hazel are not huge and showy, they can have several flowers blooming at the same time giving the shrub beautiful color.

Like many other plants, witch hazel flowers are pollinated by insects. Since its flowers bloom in late fall, you may wonder how to pollinate it since there are so few insects this time of year.

Fortunately for witch hazel, there is a specific type of moth that remains active during freezing weather. These moths belong to the owl moth family (Noctuidae). They fly at night in search of feeding sources such as tree sap and flower nectar.

Witch hazel flower nectar is the favorite food of these moths because it is the only thing that blooms in late fall. Much like bees and other pollinating insects, when moths feed on nectar they transfer pollen as they fly from one flower to another allowing pollination to occur.

Although pollination occurs at this time of year, the seeds do not begin to grow until spring. They are produced in easy-to-spot green seed capsules that form where the flowers are.

It takes several months for the seeds to mature. The seed capsules are retained on the plant the following season before finally ripening. This makes the witch hazel a bit unusual for a native plant in that it has seeds and flowers on its branches at the same time.

The seed capsules found this fall are from flowers that were pollinated last fall. When they mature and turn brown in the second fall, they’ll pop open! With each pod it releases two seeds 10 and sometimes 30 feet apart. The seeds then take another year to germinate.

Witch hazel has two growth forms, it can grow either as a small tree or as a shrub. As a tree it can grow up to 20 feet tall while the shrub form is generally shorter and does not grow taller than 12 feet. The shrub tends to grow slowly. The piece in our garden is about 10 feet tall and has been there for almost 20 years. Their slow growth habit can be an advantage in small yards since they rarely become too large for the space and overpopulate their welcome.

While the shape of the tree is generally fairly small, there is a large witch hazel tree in Michigan in Muskegon County that reaches 43 feet tall.

In the landscape, you can use individual plants as an accent or plant several in a row to get an interesting flowering border.

During the fall, witch hazel leaves turn golden yellow adding their eye-catching color to the fall landscape. On plants growing in some locations, the leaves will cling to the plant longer to hide the flowers for a while until they finally fall off allowing the flowers to be seen.

People who practice water magic or water dowsing (seeking for underground water sources) often prefer to use the forked branches of American witch hazel to make their dowsing rods. The astringent of witch hazel is used for skin care of leaves, twigs and bark.

Plant nurseries and garden centers sell potted witch hazel, but be aware that they often offer imported Japanese witch hazel or Chinese witch hazel, both of which bloom in mid- to late winter rather than in fall. There is a native species called spring hazel that is available occasionally, but it also blooms in late winter.

Witch Hazel is giving the growing season one last chance!

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