Witch hazel: the bizarre feast bees want within the low season


Inside: Witch hazel is an usually missed pollinator plant. Relying on the species you will have, it blooms very late in fall or very early in spring, simply when bees want it most.

Witch hazel has all the time flustered me. As a child, witch hazel-scented merchandise jogged my memory of a suffocating aunt who delivered too many perfumed hugs. If I smelled it at a picnic or a church supper, my abdomen would flip-flop. Even the title tormented me.

This text first appeared in American Bee Journal, Quantity 163 No. 4, April 2023.

For many years, I prevented something to do with witch hazel till an icy morning final October after I encountered a lone witch hazel shrub in full bloom. I used to be strolling residence from city, slicing throughout a sunny park after I seen a plant bedecked with spidery blossoms. The petals shimmered in shades of mustard flippantly tinged with apricot and garnet.

Once I first noticed the blazing shrub, I considered forsythia: comfortable yellow flowers on chilly, naked branches. As I walked nearer, the crunchy crystalline grass underfoot and the sparkly picnic tables jogged my memory that the season was all improper.

A heat flash in a chilling panorama

Hours later, after the earth warmed, I returned to the park for a re-assessment. Pollinators galore, enticed by the balmy sunshine, attended the ribbon-like blooms. Small flies, salmon-colored moths, and much of honey bees with vivid pollen hundreds smothered the blossoms, buzzing and whining as they scrabbled by means of the yellow. As an alternative of the heavy odor I recalled from childhood, the air was scented with reminiscences of cinnamon, nutmeg, and sassafras. Immediately, witch hazel pinged my radar and kindled my curiosity. I used to be immediately bewitched, you may say.

Since that illuminating second in South Dakota, I’ve tried to study why so many lists of pollinator crops overlook witch hazel. A lot of my most trusted guides ignore it utterly. I made a decision to pursue the query additional after studying a quick passage in Lovell’s 1926 ebook, Honey Crops of North America. The passage says, “Because it blooms so late and is plentiful, it’s useful in getting ready the bees for winter.” I by no means knew.(1)

The yellow petals of blooming witch hazel are often described as scraggly or messy, as if they’ve been crunched and released.
The yellow petals of blooming witch hazel are sometimes described as scraggly or messy, as in the event that they’ve been crunched and launched.

The botanical tells of a late-bloomer

Witch hazel is bewildering just because it blooms so late within the 12 months. The genus Hamamelis comprises simply 5 species, three native to jap North America and two native to components of Asia.

Our commonest species, Hamamelis virginiana, usually referred to as widespread or American witch hazel, sometimes grows between 6 and 25 toes tall, however it will possibly attain as much as 40 toes in the fitting situations. It has easy grey bark and a rounded or irregular crown with a dense, twiggy progress behavior.

The leaves, that are alternate and easy with wavy or serrated margins, stay darkish inexperienced all through spring and summer season. However come fall, they flip yellow, orange, or vermilion. In accordance with quite a few references, the shrub usually sheds its cloak of showy leaves even earlier than the primary flowers seem.

The shrub happens naturally all through the jap states from Maine to northern Florida, and as far west as Wisconsin and Texas. Witch hazel thrives in average temperatures and rainfall however, as a result of it’s simply adaptable to most North American climates, it has been planted extensively all through the nation. The flowers happen from mid to late fall.

Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis), native to Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas blooms from midwinter till spring. Large-leaf witch hazel, H. ovalis, seems within the southeastern states and blooms from December by means of February.

As well as, plenty of cultivars now dot the panorama. Lots of the specimens we see exterior of witch hazel’s pure vary have been bred for his or her putting colours.(2) For probably the most half, the cultivars I’ve seen appeal to pollinators as readily because the originals.

Loopy crimped and curly flowers

The spindly yellow flowers of witch hazel cluster on barren branches. They’re usually described as spindly, crepy, or crimped as if the petals had been shredded, balled right into a wad, then launched. A welcome feast for late pollinators, the flowers bloom lengthy after most flowering crops have sheltered for the winter. As well as, the blooms are long-lasting, stored contemporary by cool days and chilly nights as in the event that they had been saved in a florist’s walk-in.

Every part about witch hazel flowers is bizarre. The blossoms of widespread witch hazel, which seem from September by means of November, cluster collectively in teams of three. Every flower has 4 yellow petals and 4 brief and squat stamens. Trying from the highest down, the petals alternate with the inexperienced stamens.

Every of the stamens has an anther that produces a number of small-grained, ultra-sticky pollen. Pollination happens when an insect transfers the pollen to a receptive stigma on one other plant. In chilly climate that lacks pollinators, some flowers are pollinated by the wind.

The ovary, which comprises two ovules, sits on the base of the pistil. The ovary dries and turns into exhausting and tight like a nutshell, defending the 2 darkish seeds whereas they mature.

Witch hazel plants have attractive fall foliage that usually drops before the flowers bloom.
Witch hazel crops have engaging fall foliage that normally drops earlier than the flowers bloom.

Flowers created with pollinators in thoughts

Profitable seedset in witch hazel is very depending on pollinators, which appears odd for one thing that blooms so late within the 12 months. In actual fact, lots of the older botanical references insist that witch hazel is wind pollinated, but the flowers have all of the insect-attracting accouterments we’ve realized to acknowledge. These embody vibrant flowers, engaging odors, sticky pollen, candy nectar, and accessible stamens and nectaries.

A large assortment of bugs is comfortable to pay a go to, each for nectar and pollen. Along with bees, moths, and varied flies, the crops appeal to beetles, parasitic wasps, gnats, leafhoppers, and flower flies. Current analysis means that whereas witch hazel is self-fertile on a restricted foundation, insect pollination enhances seed manufacturing.

Low seed set and delayed fertilization

Even with all these guests, seedset in witch hazel is rumored to be lower than one p.c. The low price is probably going associated to the blooming season: If the times flip too chilly for pollinators to fly, the plant will endure. Likewise, the hours of daylight are brief and winds might be unpredictable and harmful to most bugs. Late-season blooming looks like dangerous enterprise, however witch hazel has thrived despite the percentages.

Along with late flowering, witch hazel exhibits an uncommon sample of delayed fertilization. The plant could also be hedging its bets in opposition to the chilly climate, however for no matter cause, the ovules are usually not fertilized till the next Might, roughly 5-7 months after pollination. The whole reproductive system merely enters chilly storage till spring.

As soon as the climate warms in Might, the ovules mature and fruits are fashioned. However seed ripening continues to be a good distance off. Odd because it appears, final 12 months’s seed will ripen simply as the present 12 months’s flowers open, lengthy about September or October. That’s proper, it takes a full 12 months from pollination to completely ripe seeds.

Witch hazel shrubs have distinctive yellow flowers on bare winter branches. They even bloom when laden with snow.
Witch hazel shrubs have distinctive yellow flowers on naked winter branches. They even bloom when laden with snow.

Duck and canopy: witch hazel seeds explode

Every ovary turns into a tough and dry woody capsule. The capsule comprises two sections (or valves) and every part produces one or two shiny black seeds. As summer season progresses, the capsule will get drier and tougher till, with a loud pop, it explodes, sending the seeds as much as 45 toes away from the mother or father plant.(3) Like little missiles, the seeds rocket previous the dripline of the mother or father shrub, giving them contemporary terrain to develop together with loads of daylight and water. 

Once I was a child in Pennsylvania, my grandfather had a indifferent storage with a mud ground. I cherished to climb the steep stairs and discover the loft the place he saved wondrous issues I wasn’t allowed to the touch.

For some cause, he stored a cast-iron shoe final that he used for cracking black walnuts. Someday, alone within the loft, I rifled by means of feed luggage filled with nuts and seeds and found some small nut-like capsules that I assumed I may crack.

I centered one on the final, however as I turned to get the hammer, the capsule fell to the ground and exploded. A projectile grazed my arm and I used to be certain I used to be lifeless. From that day ahead, I knew the place was haunted, and it was weeks earlier than I timidly returned. A lot later, I found extra of these explosive units beneath a hedgerow, nonetheless clueless about their identification.

Nectar and pollen traits

Based mostly on the array of bugs it attracts on a heat day, witch hazel is a superb pollinator plant. Nevertheless, fall- and winter-blooming varieties are unlikely to draw many bee species. Most bees are solitary and won’t forage that late within the 12 months, though a number of halictids (sweat bees) might present up for a deal with.

Honey bees are the exception. As a result of a honey bee colony doesn’t hibernate, the employees are free to gather on these uncommon heat days in late fall and early winter. Certainly, I’ve learn many accounts of honey bees foraging closely on the flowers, gathering each pollen and nectar.

The pollen is pretty candy, in a spread that satisfies hungry bugs, and the pollen grains are small and sticky. The perfume varies extensively between species and cultivars, starting from spicy to negligible. The flowers odor nothing just like the odor I bear in mind from my oversensitive childhood.

As well as, widespread witch hazel is likely one of the host crops for the endangered spring azure butterfly, Celastrina ladon. The butterfly larvae (caterpillars) devour the leaves in early spring.

The shrub has an unkempt appearance in winter, so picky gardeners should place it with care.
The shrub has an unkempt look in winter, so choosy gardeners ought to place it with care.

Witch hazel as a backyard plant

Witch hazel is a hardy plant that may tolerate a variety of rising situations, together with full solar or partial shade and moist or dry soils. Additionally it is tolerant of city air pollution, salt, and clay soils. It may be propagated by seed however is extra generally propagated by layering, rooting of softwood cuttings, or hardwood cuttings.

Whether or not witch hazel is an appropriate backyard plant is up for debate. Those that admire the late blossoms welcome the blazing yellow flowers that adorn a monochrome panorama. In addition they benefit from the wildlife that attends the flowers and seed capsules. However different individuals describe the flowers as scraggly, untamed, wild, shabby, or bedraggled.

As a result of final 12 months’s seeds and the present 12 months’s flowers coincide, an extended record of wildlife arrives together with the pollinators. Wild turkeys, bobwhite, ruffed grouse, cardinals, jays, chickadees, and titmice all take a flip at a productive shrub. These are joined by finches, sparrows, nuthatches, and thrushes. Mammals, together with deer, rabbits, and squirrels, be part of the feast as nicely.

What’s within the title?

The plant household Hamamelidaceae comprises all of the witch hazels together with many different deciduous timber and shrubs starting from North and Central America to East Asia, Africa, and Australia. Along with the three North American species of witch hazel, China and Japan every have one native, H. mollis and H. japonica, respectively.

The genus title Hamamelis means “along with fruit,” referring to the odd look of final 12 months’s fruit with the present 12 months’s flowers. Due to its uncommon flowering schedule, witch hazel is usually referred to as winterbloom.

The widespread title “witch hazel” is tougher to hint. Some say the phrase witch derives from the Center English wiche that means bendable or pliant. This title dates again to the times of “water-witching” when a pliable department was thought of helpful for locating underground water. Since many thought the plant was a real hazel, the title “witching hazel” was utilized.

In North America, witch hazel is usually related to the sweetgum tree, genus Liquidambar. For many years, each had been in the identical household, however just lately sweetgum was given its family, Altingiaceae. Much like witch hazel, these small timber are native to areas of east Asia and North America.(4)

On this photograph, you’ll be able to see a mature seed capsule from final 12 months together with this 12 months’s flowers.

A be aware about medicinal makes use of

As a result of I’m not into natural drugs, I received’t provide opinions on the handfuls of natural concoctions that characteristic witch hazel. I’ve seen recipes for treating a complete encyclopedia’s value of illnesses, all centered round this one plant. Practitioners make tinctures, infusions, elixirs, potions, and brews, all specifically formulated to treatment what ails you or your livestock.

However there’s one factor I’ll share.

My dad was a pharmaceutical researcher. Though he couldn’t inform an oxalis from an oak, he marveled over the distinctive and various chemical compounds in crops and the way they fashioned the idea for contemporary medicines. For instance, digoxin and digitoxin from foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) are used to deal with coronary heart situations, morphine from the bread-seed poppy (Papavar somniferum) is used for ache, and quinine from the cinchona tree (Cinchona calisaya) is used in opposition to malaria. Even aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) originated from willow bark.

He believed that the extinction of a single species of plant was an incalculable loss to humanity as a result of that plant might have held a small pharmacy of unrealized medicine. I can’t even think about what he would consider a current estimate from the IUCN (Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature) that implies as much as 68 p.c of plant species are at present threatened with extinction. The loss is mind-boggling.

Save a plant, save a bee

As beekeepers, we perceive that bees want crops, crops want bees, and we’d like each. As a result of we take care of crops and bees day by day, we’re uniquely positioned to unfold the phrase and maybe contribute to saving some small a part of the planet.

So go forward. Plant a witch hazel or another off-the-wall plant for the bees. There’s by no means been a extra necessary time to offer our struggling pollinators a leg up (or six). Late-blooming witch hazel in your yard could also be simply the factor they want.

Honey Bee Suite


  1. Lovell, JH. 1926. Honey Crops of North America. Medina, Ohio: The A.I. Root Firm
  1. Brickell, C. and Cathey, H.M. 2004. A-Z Encyclopedia of Backyard Crops. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.
  1. Loewer, P. 1995. Seeds: The Definitive Information to Rising, Historical past & Lore. New York: Macmillan
  1. Hylander, C.J. 1956. The World of Plant Life, 2nd Ed. London: The Macmillan Firm
  1. Middle for Organic Range: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/applications/biodiversity/ elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/


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