The Shrub for All Seasons
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Some species of woody plants are known for particular traits obvious in certain seasons such as the vibrant color of red maple leaves in fall or the spectacular flowers of dogwood in spring. Witch-hazel is one of my favorite specimens of the Wintergreen mountainside because it offers outstanding traits throughout the season. This Nine Minute Naturalist will take a deep dive into the awesome qualities of witch-hazel.
Witch-hazel is a common fixture in our oak-hickory forest type. This shrub tends to favor deep, rich soil locations, often near water sources or along forest edges. It can grow to 20 feet and creates a lovely canopy effect due to its arching branches of smooth gray bark growing in multi-stemmed clumps and is in the witch-hazel and Sweetgum family.
This arching shrub offers something unique in each season. In spring, witch-hazel unfurls a lovely green broadly ovate scalloped leaf that generally arrives a bit before the overcanopy of oaks leaf out. By summer, the dark green leaves have formed a dense canopy for hikers to walk under along our trail system. An inspection of the leaves in summer reveals that witch-hazel is growing an odd cap atop its leaf. The witch-hazel leaf is host to a number of distinctive insect galls, one of which is shaped like a witch’s hat. The fall and winter are when the witch-hazel stands out. In fall, the leaves change from dark green to a buttery, yellow color and the seed pods begin to burst, which pop loudly enough to be heard by the attentive hiker. This violent popping of the pod sends seeds flying up to 30 feet away. Once the leaves fall off in late fall, we get the visual treat of a flowering shrub amongst the dreariness of early winter. In October, flowers bloom at the base of the stem and leaves, often hidden from sight until leaves fall off, surprise us with a show of color when none is expected. The flowers are amongst the hardiest of flowers, blooming for approximately eight weeks. When the temperature dips low, the flowers curl up and look ready to fall off. When warmer days return, the ribbonlike petals unfurl again as if to mock the winter weather. The fragrance of the flower is minimal in cold weather environments, but a few sprigs cut from the shrub and placed in a vase with water in the home offers a surprisingly fragrant scent.
Another reason to love this shrub is the medicinal aspect. Witch-hazel has long been used in traditional medicine as a natural remedy for certain skin conditions such as acne, burns, hemorrhoids, insect bites, and varicose veins. The liniment is made from an extract from leaves, twigs and bark and is still on the market today.
The time is right to venture into the drab forest of late fall and find this dynamic flowering shrub that calls Wintergreen home. Use the distinct flowers to help you identify witch-hazel and make sure to appreciate it throughout the season.