October flowers bloom on bewitching shrubs

Posted Oct. 08, 2010, at 9:09 p.m.

In October, while most of the plants in Marjorie’s garden are fading into dormancy, the common witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) are in full bloom. I can go all summer tending vegetables and never give these shrubs a thought, then one crisp autumn morning I round the corner near the woodpile and there they are, their bright-yellow leaves holding fast to zigzag twigs, hiding the flowers.

Yes, flowers in October! On naked twigs you easily can see the pale greenish gold and slightly fragrant blooms, clustered in threes along the stem where leaves once were attached, each flower bearing four twisted and crinkled ribbon-shaped petals. When temperatures fall below freezing, the petals roll into tightly curled balls, extending the life of the flower to ensure pollination when the temperature rises.

What would provoke a plant to flower so late in the year? Roger Swain, in his book “Saving Graces,” explains it this way:

“The unfurling of flowers this late in the year is no casual appearance, done for the enjoyment of winter walkers. Rather, the witch hazel is out to attract the attention of an equally untimely group of insects. Not butterflies, or bees, or even flies, but a group of winter moths. Some 50 species of owlet moths, in the family Noctui-dae, are abroad at night in the dead of winter in northern hardwood forests. Their caterpillars feed on tree buds during early spring, then are quiescent all summer. The adults emerge in the fall, live out the winter, and die when they have laid their eggs.

“These dull-colored moths — black, brown, gray, or cream — wait out the cold, insulated by thick pile coats and by the layer of fallen leaves under which they hide. But on those sporadic winter nights when the temperature has risen to near freezing, they begin to shiver, vibrating their wings until they have raised their body temperature to the 85 degrees necessary for takeoff. Generally, the moths seek out the sap oozing from injured trunks and branches, but on late-autumn nights they gather at witch hazel, drawn to the nectar on its golden boughs.”

I have ventured into the garden on past October nights to witness this event, but my visits have yet to be rewarded.

Native from Canada to northern Florida, the common witch hazel is a small tree growing to no more than 20 feet in height; in Maine, it is more often found as a large understory shrub both in the wild and the garden. Inconspicuous in the summer garden, it steals the show on blue-sky October mornings as its golden leaves reflect the angled sunlight. The flower display begins as the leaves start to turn and continues after they fall; in some years the flowers last until December.

The fruits of witch hazels, fuzzy two-beaked woody capsules, take a full year to ripen with those from last year still on the branches with this year’s blooms. The capsules explode violently, ejecting the shiny, hard, black seeds more than 30 feet away from the parent plant. After expelling their seed, the open capsules remain on the plant for yet another year.

The witch hazel plant has a colorful history. Native Americans began the practice of extracting the oil of witch hazel to use as a curative for all sorts of diseases, and early white settlers also believed in its medicinal power. In New England, aromatic extracts of the bark, twigs and leaves were prepared in alcohol for use as an anti-septic and gargle. When plant chemists eventually demonstrated that these preparations were essentially inert, with any curative properties probably residing in the alcohol, a market developed for the use of the aromatic oils in after-shave lotions and toilet water. Do any of my readers remember these concoctions?

What is certain is that, in the time of America’s settling, witch hazel was used in local witchery. Read Donald Culross Peattie’s account, from “A Natural History of Trees”:

“You took a forked branch, one whose points grew north and south so that they had felt the influence of the sun at its rising and setting, and you carried it with a point in each hand, the stem pointing forward. Any downward tug of the stem was caused by the flow of hidden water or the gleam of buried gold.”

It is the gleam of gold buried in the autumn leaves and flowers of this plant that draw me near.

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