Story and photos by Tom Hodgson
It’s been a great fall season.
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. October weather for the most part has been pleasant.
By the time this article is published we will be enjoying the last of the fall colors. Killing frosts will soon hasten leaf fall and put an end to the last of the late season blossoms.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 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 woods 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.
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 capsules ripen. They split apart with explosive force, shooting their black, shiny seeds up to 30 feet.
The exploding capsules can produce a snapping sound that, 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 as 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. But for now, it just gives us another reason to go for a walk in the woods.