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The last flower of the season: Get to know Witch Hazel

Photo by Tom Hodgson. Witch Hazel blossom cluster.

(Chelsea Update would like to thank Tom Hodgson for this story and the photos that accompany it.)

It’s been a great fall season. In spite of near drought conditions this summer, autumn leaf colors have been excellent and long lasting. Goldenrod and daisy-like asters have brightened area fields with their blossoms of yellow, pink, blue and purple. And, the weather these last few days has been glorious.

Sadly, by the time this article is published, both the colors and temperatures will have come crashing down. Then all we will have to look forward to until next spring will be barren trees and a land covered with faded, brown leaves. But wait — there is one remaining plant that will carry its blossoms well into November and give us one last splash of color.

Witch hazel waits until all other blossoms have faded to put on its own color show. This shrub grows to a height of 6-to-10 feet. It thrives under the forest canopy, especially on sites that have been undisturbed for many years. Its clusters of bright yellow flowers now hug mostly bare branches. Their thin, strap-like petals give them a spider-like appearance.

Those who haven’t seen witch hazel in bloom would do well to walk the lowland trail at the Discovery Center. It grows in abundance on the back half of the trail where it rejoins the path to the beech woods and bog. Last year, witch hazel shrubs had few blossoms, but they are making up for it this fall.

Photo by Tom Hodgson. Witch Hazel leaves and blossoms.

Witch hazel is interesting for more than its unusual blossoms. After pollination, the flowers wither and are replaced by hard, woody seed capsules. The capsules take about a year to mature. As the new flowers come into bloom, last year’s capsuled ripen. They split apart with explosive force, shooting their black, shiny seeds up to thirty feet. The exploding capsules can produce a snapping sound which, on a quiet day, can be heard from some distance. It’s no wonder this shrub is also called “snap hazel.”

Witch hazel has been used a remedy for many maladies. Extracts from the leaves and bark have astringent qualities, and are still widely found in medicines for varicose veins, and hemorrhoids. Native Americans also used witch hazel to treat bites, stings and even poison ivy rashes. Finally, the divining rods that dowsers used to locate underground water were often made from witch hazel.

And, of course, don’t forget to keep an eye out for sandhill cranes that are still in the area. This year is expected to be the year for viewing these birds with 5,000 to 6,000 in the area. They are best viewed about two hours before sunset.

For more information about the birds’ migration, check here and here.

Photo by Tom Hodgson. Witch hazel seed capsules.
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