There’s an American Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) planted on the east side of the house. Rabbits chewed it to the ground every year before I protected it with hardware cloth.  Then it bounded upward and quickly reached its current height of about 10′. It’s still growing, I think.

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This is the first year I’ve noticed the Witch-Hazel flowers while they are in bloom. They’ve only just started to open in the last couple of days. Eccentric is a good descriptive adjective for the flowers. For one thing, the petals look like yellow twist ties, or those crispy noodles my mother used to buy in plastic bags (to be served with gloppy canned chow mein).

The flowers have 4 strappy petals and 4 triangular sepals at the base.

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The other eccentric thing is that Witch Hazel starts blooming just as most autumn flowers are packing it in. Above you can see the flower petals in the process of unfolding.

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Eventually the flowers turn into seed capsules that are favored by a number of bird species. I was also reading recently that Witch-Hazels are a preferred nesting tree for Indigo Buntings.

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Witch-Hazel flowers also provide sustenance for late-season pollinators, including many wasp and hoverfly species.

Eventually the foliage is supposed to turn bright yellow, but the flowers often keep blooming even after the leaves have dropped.

That’s what I’ve read, anyhow. I’ll keep you informed.

46 Comments on “The Eccentric Flowers of American Witch-Hazel

  1. I love witch hazels. Yours are blooming ahead of ours in Maine! Ours are often in flower during very cold weather, which led to a lot of speculation about what insect pollinated them during such cold spells. It was a long standing mystery, solved not too long ago by Bernd Heinrich (author of many nature books including The Trees in My Forest, Ravens in Winter, and The Snoring Bird) . The pollinators are winter-flying moths which are able to thermoregulate by beating their wings to raise their body temperature. It also helps that they have a lot of “fur” on their bodies. Is that a “gee whiz” story, or what? Enjoy those wonderful flowers!

  2. This is like the trophy for having beat the rabbits! It does my heart good whenever a gardener triumphs over those little rotters.

  3. My Witch Hazel is blooming too. I do love those flowers. I didn’t know about Indigo Buntings liking to nest in them. Indigo Buntings are normally only in my garden when they pass through to their summering grounds. What a treat it would be to have one pair stay.

    • Yes, we see Indigo Buntings for only a few days each year, if we are lucky. They do breed in Illinois, though, so they are nesting somewhere.

  4. Do indigo buntings come to Chicago suburbs? What a treat it would be to have them in your yard.

  5. Take that, rabbits! Witch-Hazel sounds like a wonderful tree to have in the yard. Any tree that attracts those exquisite indigo bunting is worth its weight in gold.

  6. My witch hazel is just starting to bloom, too. It really stands out when the leaves drop and, as you note, the yellow flowers are about the only bright blooms around. The tree stands beside the pathway to my front door and provides a canopy. I love it. Now, all I need are indigo buntings!

  7. Lovely shots. I really like witch hazel, or at least, I like photos of it! There is a native here in Texas, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it in a nursery. Perhaps the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center grows it? I should look for one the next time I visit.

    • According to the Ladybird Johnson Center, H. varnalis, also called Ozark or Vernal Witch-Hazel, is native to Texas, though I don’t know how extensively throughout the state.

  8. One of my more memorable errors was confusing witch hazel with dodder. Eventually I sorted that out, but I still haven’t seen witch hazel. I’ve assumed it doesn’t grow here, but perhaps it can be found in other parts of Texas. I’ll have to do some keyboard exploring and see whether that’s so.

  9. I have a new-to-me witch hazel (Arnold Promise) that is in bud now but is won’t flower until March here. I hadn’t thought of rabbits but we do have them and so perhaps I had better take precautions re: the trunk! The witch hazel is only about 30″ tall at this stage.

  10. Didn’t realize witch hazels bloomed so early. I think of them as early winter treats. Their size have always made me shy away but the fragrance is wonderful in the local botanical gardens.

    • I think bloom time varies a lot by species – they are either late fall or late winter/early spring. This species doesn’t seem to have much fragrance.

  11. I adore this native witchhazel. I have it and several Hamamelis vernalis for its winter bloom. They are fun to photograph as they unfurl!

  12. I do love this beautiful witch hazel. I also have H vernalis for it’s winter bloom. Aren’t the furling and unfurling petals fun to photograph!

  13. It’s a really pretty one – and so early to bloom too. I think here they mostly start flowering in January, but they must be a different kind. Are the flowers on yours scented at all? I am still wondering whether to plant one this year or not!

  14. Like Cathy, I thought that they started to flower in very early winter – perhaps in February – and that their blooms were a reddish colour….perhaps, as she thinks, a different variety? I was considering planting witch hazel in a bed near our driveway, but I need something with at least a moderate growth rate and read that witch hazel was VERY slow….sounds like yours grew at a rather fast pace?

  15. That is a good description of the bloom. We grew garden varieties of Hamamelis for a few years, but no common witch hazel. I got two seedlings (or cuttings) for my own garden from the Arbor Day Foundation. The garden varieties mostly bloom later, and each at distinct times. (I did not want to respond to all the comments about bloom season above.) I have not grown them long enough to know much about pruning them, but would guess that they eventually get pruned by ‘alternating canes’ sort of like the native (but unrelated) hazel, as well as forsythia and lilac. The native hazel grows wild here. I prune out the old canes as they deteriorate, and as they are replaced by newer canes. The newer canes do not bloom in their first year, but bloom the following year.

      • If it is just recovering from getting eaten by rabbits, and bloom only for the first time, it is probably too early to prune. If I were to grow them again, I would probably prune them annually to remove the oldest canes. However it might take a few years to start the process. If I let it grow for five years, and prune out the oldest canes there would be a mix of canes that are one, two, three and four years old. Repeating the process annually leaves the same mix. It all depend on how long canes continue to perform. If they are good for only tree years, I would start the process after only tree years. For some plants. only new canes need to be retained. After bloom, I prune forsythia to remove all but the unbranched canes from the previous year that did not bloom. They grow through the year to bloom the following spring, and then get pruned away, leaving only new unbloomed canes to repeat the process. (I only do it because I do not want a thicket, but would recommend leaving canes for two or three or even four years, rather than just one year.)

      • Actually it’s been 3 or 4 (or more?) years since I started protecting it from rabbits. Though at this point it doesn’t look to me like it needs pruning.

      • Well, if the canes are three of four years old and blooming for the first time, you would want to give it a while to see how it blooms next year. If canes need to be that old, You will take out only those that are old enough to be deteriorating.

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