Bewitching Witch-hazel

It’s well into December, and American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is still in bloom, brightening our winter shade garden and the woodland understory.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

The flowers are arranged in clusters, usually in threes.  Each flower has four long, spidery, streamer-like petals.  In the center of the flowers, you can see other flower parts that also come in fours.  Four stamens (male reproductive parts) are tucked in between the petals, protected from below by the four sepals that protected the flower until it was ready to open.  The pistils (female reproductive parts) can be seen in the very center of the flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have not yet open to release pollen.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower beginning to bloom. The anthers have opened to release pollen.

Even though Witch-hazel blooms when the weather is cooler, it relies primarily on insects for pollination.  Various fly species are the most frequent flower visitors. This is not too surprising, since many flies are active at fairly low temperatures. Several species of bees, small wasps, moths and even beetles have also been documented as potential Witch-hazel pollinators.  They are attracted by the color of the petals, a mild (to me, at least) fragrance, and the fact that there is not much else in bloom.  If the weather doesn’t cooperate and not enough insects are active, witch-hazel is capable of self-pollination, although cross-pollination with the assistance of an insect is preferred, since this produces a stronger genetic result.  Fertilization is delayed until spring, after which fruits begin to develop.

Even during and after our first snowstorm of the season with about 5 inches of wet snow, these tough little flowers hung on, looking as fresh as ever.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), still blooming in spite of the snow.

Such tenacity can pay off.  While looking at the flower photos that I took during the storm, I found a moth taking refuge on a branch near the flowers, waiting for the temperatures to warm up enough to become active and search for nectar.  That little moth could make a nice snack for a Chickadee and Titmouse searching the seemingly baren winter branches.

A moth sheltering on Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) during a December snow storm.

The flowers are accompanied by fruit capsules that look like small flowers carved from wood. These fruit capsules are the product of the previous year’s successfully pollinated flowers.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with open fruit capsules

In early October, as the leaves began to turn from green to yellow, the fruit capsules and flower buds were still tightly closed.  As this season’s flowers began to bloom, the fruit capsules opened explosively, ejecting the seeds several feet away.  The seeds will wait through two winters before they germinate.  Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, as well as some rabbits and squirrels eat the fruit.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in early fall, with fruit capsules and flower buds still tightly closed

Witch-hazel is well-known for its use as an astringent and anti-inflammatory agent.  You may have a bottle in your medicine cabinet now.  Witch-hazel is used to treat wounds and hemorrhoids, and it’s an ingredient in some cosmetics.  It acts as a styptic to stop bleeding, and reduces bruising and inflammation.  It also helps reduce the chances of infection.

It’s not by accident that Witch-hazel has these properties.  The tannins found in the leaves and inner bark of Witch-hazel provide these benefits.  Witch-hazel produces these compounds as protection from herbivores, and to inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria that might be harmful to the plant.  Fortunately for us, humans can also benefit.

The tannins are not 100% successful in deterring herbivores.  There are some insects that specialize on Witch-hazel as their source of food, including the caterpillars of several moth species.  There are also two aphid species that produce eye-catching galls. (A gall is a growth that is the plant’s reaction to being used as a source of food and shelter by an organism such as an insect, fungus or bacteria. Galls seldom cause any harm to the plant, and they may stimulate the plant to produce more protective chemicals.)

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom, with spiny Witch-hazel bud galls

The spiny witch-hazel bud gall aphid (Hamamelistes spinosus) is named for the appearance of the gall the plant produces from bud tissue in response to being used as a home by the developing aphids.  At this time of year, the gall looks woody.  At a quick glance it might be mistaken for a fruit capsule, until you notice the spines.

Earlier in the season, the spiny witch-hazel bud gall is green and fleshy.

Spiny Witch-hazel bud gall, with ants. What’s the attraction?

It’s interesting that there are so many ants swarming this gall.  If the gall were open and the aphids were available, the ants would likely be milking them for delicious ‘honeydew’ (excrement).  But the aphids have not reached maturity, they are still safely encased inside the gall.

Ants are often very beneficial to plants.  They disperse the seeds of many spring blooming wildflowers, for one thing.  Ants also provide protection from herbivores like caterpillars who might eat a plant’s leaves, flowers or buds, because other insects are an important part of an ant’s diet.  Plants often emit a chemical call to arms to alert ants and other predators to the availability of insect food. The plant may offer an additional reward and reason to stick around in the form of nectar not associated with flowers (extra-floral nectaries) or resins, specifically aimed at payment to their protectors.

It’s a mystery to me what caused the ants in this photo to visit.  Maybe this Witch-hazel detected the presence of a new generation of insect eggs (not visible to me), and sent out a distress signal to the ants.  Any other ideas?

Pristine leaves unfold in spring, but they are often quickly put to use as food and shelter by another aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis), the Witch-hazel leaf or cone gall aphid.  This gall resembles a cone, or a witch’s hat.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaves in spring

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaf with Witch-hazel cone gall, caused by an aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis)

Both of these aphids spend part of their life cycle on birch trees.

Witch-hazel branches have been used as divining rods to find underground water sources, a practice sometimes referred to as ‘water witching’.  In theory at least, the branch would point or bend towards the ground when it detected water.  The ‘Witch’ in ‘Witch-hazel’ is based on an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘wych’, that means ‘bending’.

Witch-hazel is a multi-stemmed shrub that can grow to a height of about 16 feet (5 meters), and can tolerate shade.  It is native in the Eastern half of the United States, and Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada.

Enjoy these bright blossoms while they last!

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom


Related Posts

A Carpet of Spring Beauty, Woven by Ants!

Will Work for Food – Extra-floral Nectaries


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Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah.  Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates.  2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A.  A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David.  Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Martin, Alexander C.;  Zim, Herbert S.; Nelson, Arnold L.  American Wildlife & Plants A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.  1951.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A.  The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Williams, Ernest H. Jr.  The Nature Handbook – A Guide to Observing the Great Outdoors.  2005.

Clemson Co-operative Extension – River Birch Aphid

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USDA NRCS Plant Database




Embracing the Shade: Summer and Fall

Is it possible to have a perennial shade garden with continuous bloom throughout the summer and fall?  By June, the trees are fully leafed out, sheltering our home from the summer sun’s strong rays. That means that the garden is in the shade, too. Will anything be blooming? You bet.

Spicebush Swallowtails nectaring on Bottlebrush Buckeye

Spicebush Swallowtails nectaring on Bottlebrush Buckeye

Some spring bloomers, like Heartleaf Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and Virginia Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum), also called Green and Gold, may continue their display into the summer months. While not yet blooming, the leaves of White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) join the violets, ferns, and Spreading Sedge (Carex laxiculmis) to form a ground cover blanketing much of the garden. Arching four to five feet above them are long sprays of Goat’s-beard (Aruncus dioicus) a.k.a. Bride’s Feathers’ tiny white flowers, lighting up the deep shade. June brings Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) and Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) blossoms, too.

Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is part of the shrub layer in the woods behind our house. In July, this reliable bloomer with its large palmately compound leaves and tall spikes of white tubular flowers attracts Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in addition to Spicebush and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails.

Dark form Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Bottlebrush Buckeye

Dark form Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Bottlebrush Buckeye

Last summer we were surprised to see dark morph Tiger Swallowtails nectaring on the Bottlebrush Buckeye. By adopting this Pipevine Swallowtail-like coloration disguise, the Tiger Swallowtails gain some protection from being eaten by birds and other predators who have learned of the Pipevine Swallowtail’s toxicity. The dark morph occurs most frequently in areas where Pipevine Swallowtails are present. Maybe Dutchman’s Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla) and its namesake swallowtail are increasing in our area!

Courting Zabulon Skippers on Purple Giant Hyssop

Courting Zabulon Skippers on Purple Giant Hyssop

July is also the beginning of Purple Giant Hyssop’s (Agastache scrophulariifolia) long bloom, lasting well into September. We have it in both deep shade and a spot that gets a few hours of afternoon sun, blooming dependably in both locations. This herbaceous plant is a great choice for a woodland garden, with a growth form that is similar to Butterfly Bush. In our garden, butterflies from the smallest skippers to the largest swallowtails love Purple Giant Hyssop. Bees love it, too, and even hummingbirds may drink from the nectar-packed purple flowers.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Giant Hyssop

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Purple Giant Hyssop

Pollinators can’t resist Mountain Mints.

Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum species) on Short-toothed Mountain Mint

Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum species) on Short-toothed Mountain Mint

I decided to try Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), also called Clustered Mountain Mint, the only one of the Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum) species I thought could tolerate some shade. I put it in the one location that gets about four hours of afternoon sun, and I got lucky. While not as robust as it would be in a sunnier spot, it’s doing well, its tiny magenta and white blossoms enticing the smaller butterflies like azures and skippers throughout July and August.

Summer Azure nectaring on Short-toothed Mountain Mint

Summer Azure nectaring on Short-toothed Mountain Mint

As summer progresses, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) radiates bright yellow sunbursts at the wood’s edge from July well into September.

Sweat Bee (Agapostemom species) on False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Sweat Bee (Agapostemom species) on False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Bumble Bees are frequent diners at Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), open for business during August and September.  Even Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will stop here for a drink.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Great Blue Lobelia

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Great Blue Lobelia

Also in August, after gathering energy from the sun from the earliest spring days when its leaves begin to emerge, White Wood Aster blinks on its light show of white blossoms, illuminating the dense shade through October. The delicate blue disk flowers of Carolina Elephantsfoot (Elephantopus carolinianus) provide a complementary offset in August and September.

White Wood Aster

White Wood Aster

Butterfly traffic slows by September, but Black Swallowtails may still lay eggs this late, sometimes on my cooking herbs (parsley and dill).

Black Swallowtail caterpillar eating parsley

Black Swallowtail caterpillar eating parsley

Last fall we hosted a chrysalis on a hot pepper plant.

Black Swallowtail chrysalis on pepper plant

Black Swallowtail chrysalis on pepper plant

More aster family members begin their fall performance now, including Blue Wood Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium),

Blue Wood Aster with Bumble Bee

Blue Wood Aster with Bumble Bee

Wreath Goldenrod (Solidago caesia),

Wreath Goldenrod

Wreath Goldenrod

and Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), in bloom and offering nectar through October or early November. Like White Wood Aster, all of the foliage of these species emerged in early spring from the winter’s leaf cover.

All of these summer and fall blooming species have a reproductive strategy that includes clusters or spikes of flowers that bloom gradually over a period of many weeks, increasing each plant’s chances of pollination by bees, butterflies, and others, and resulting in a long colorful garden display.When successfully pollinated, Purple Giant Hyssop, Carolina Elephantsfoot and Woodland Sunflower offer Chickadees, Goldfinches and other birds a fall bounty of food.

Goldfinch eating Elephant's Foot seeds

Goldfinch eating Elephant’s Foot seeds

Resident and migrant birds dine on the bright red fruit of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and the dark blue fruit of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium). This is after a busy season of acting as caterpillar food plants – Spicebush and Sassafras for Spicebush Swallowtails, Flowering Dogwood and Blackhaw for Spring Azures.

Flowering Dogwood fruit

Flowering Dogwood fruit

In October and November, Witch-hazel’s (Hamamelis virginiana) spidery yellow blossoms complement the fall foliage.

Witch-hazel flowers and fruits

Witch-hazel flowers and fruits

The bright red fruits of Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) may last until late winter, when hungry birds finally eat them.

Winterberry Holly berries

Winterberry Holly berries

Little maintenance is required in this woodland garden. Because the plants have filled in to form a ground cover in most places, there is little weeding to do. We primarily use naturally fallen leaves as mulch, although we may supplement with a bit of prepared leaf compost around the front edges, in deference to our homeowners’ association’s sensibilities.

When we were trying to grow lawn in the shade, it was sparse, and we had problems with standing water after a heavy rainfall. Not anymore. The trees, shrubs and other plants in the garden, as well as the leaf litter, help the soil to absorb rainfall. The shade keeps the soil from drying out too quickly. So once these plants are established, watering is only required when drought conditions become extreme.

Not a bad performance for a woodland garden. And it brings so much pleasure!


This is part 3 of a 3 part series.  To see parts 1 & 2, see A Butterfly Garden That Embraces the Shade and  A Butterfly Garden That Embraces the Shade – Spring.

This post was adapted from an article that was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Butterfly Gardener, a publication of the North American Butterfly Association.