Monday, August 10, 2009

Witch Hazel

The most common understory shrub (or small tree) in our southern New Hampshire woods is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). It grows in the shade beneath a canopy of oaks and pines. And yet like all plants its branches stretch toward small gaps of light, creating a vase-like arching growth form.

The oval leaves have scalloped edges. About now the branches sport half inch long, tan, woody capsules. These mature in late summer and early fall when they suddenly burst open to release two small black seeds with such a force that they can land up to 30 feet away. The old capsules, as you can see below, persist on the branch into the next season.

When the leaves turn a golden yellow in the fall, the flowers appear. The yellow flowers have four streamer-like petals. Odd in their appearance and in their timing, Native Americans called this plant "winterbloom."

At any time of year it is an interesting plant to see as you walk through the woods, breathing in the refreshing wood air.

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