The witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a fascinating small tree of local woodlands that is probably best known for the extract derived from its bark. Who doesn’t have a bottle of witch hazel astringent in the medicine cabinet to treat insect bites and other skin irritations?

Easily identified by its large, lopsided, wavy-edged leaves that turn yellow in the fall, the witch-hazel grows ten to twenty feet tall. Sometimes considered a shrub, it branches out from multiple trunks.

Seed pods. Breaking New Ground in Zone 5 by Annie CC BY-ND 4.0

One characteristic that makes this tree so interesting is the fact that you can find its seed pods forming in the summer and ripening in early autumn, yet its flowers don’t appear until autumn. Seems backwards, doesn’t it? Actually, the seed pods you’re seeing now are the fruit of last year’s flowers. When they are ready, the four sections of the half-inch long pod will suddenly split open, projecting the shiny black seeds up to twenty feet. 

Witch-hazel flowers are a delightful surprise in a late autumn forest. These tiny flowers have thin, bright yellow petals reminiscent of miniature streamers. They provide the last forage of the year for bees, as well as a lively bit of color in the gray November woods.

Cindi Kobak