Each November there is a guided hike in Altona Forest – all about recognizing and identifying trees by their bark, buds, and growing patterns. One resident tree we discuss is the native witch hazel. With graceful spreading branches, it has a vase-shape and is attractive – but we’d just missed her late-fall show. I promised myself that I’d go looking for this small tree’s display this year in mid-October, since my timing is off every year!
Witch hazel is commonly known for it’s medicinal qualities as an astringent, treating insect bites, sunburn, blemishes and other skin inflammation, and it’s historical use as a water divining rod.
However to gardeners and naturalists, witch hazel’s qualities are about it’s spicy scent and it’s blooms… at a time when you’d never expect to see anything blooming. Native witch hazel – sometimes called ‘winterbloom’ – is Hamamelis virginiana. It blooms in fall – almost impossibly late in fall with a show of small, scented yellow firework blossoms.
The flowers have thin, ribbon-like petals that are swirled and twisted from the small four-petaled base. Watch for these clusters of blossoms in October to early November – the tree may have it’s fall yellow foliage or be bare in bloom-time as it was today.
Foreign species bloom in yellow or red, come from Europe, Japan or China, and bloom in late winter. While these more showy varieties are commonly found in the garden centres, they shouldn’t be confused with the native variety.
You will find native hazel growing in dappled sun, in woody areas, and at the forest edge or in clearings. The witch hazel we saw was right on the trail – near Post 36. At about 9 feet tall, it was a small example of the tree which can reach 20′.
Seed pods of witch hazel are also interesting since they are tight, brown pods that suddenly explode sending their glossy black oval seeds up to 10′ away. Some birds will eat the seeds, though no birds rank these as favourites.
As witch hazels are forest-edge species, I suspect many were lost to the development of our neighbourhood. I sourced 2 native witch hazels from a ‘from-seed grower‘ and planted them where TRCA cut the 2 ash trees at our fence-line. They are growing slowly and will one day add to the native canopy, shade out the existing dog-strangling vine (DSV), and hopefully seed into the area. The forest edge is full of aggressive invasives that move in when the ground is disturbed (from construction) like DSV and buckthorn so let’s hope this good witch can hold her own!
Gardening with native plants is about finding plants indigenous to our area and then figuring out how to use them in our gardens. Will they give us the ‘interest’ that we look for – that could be bark, foliage, blossoms or berries? Will they be space efficient? Will they lend themselves to planting beds? Does witch hazel make your planting list?
I hope that there are a few witch hazels left in Altona Forest – not just the one right on the trail. Let me know if you’ve spotted a witch hazel along Altona’s winding paths.
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
About Witch Hazel (and photos through the seasons)
About Witch Hazel (wiki)
Native Witch Hazel – description and blooming pattern
The Good Witch ~ © 2018 Natasha G