The Northeast winter often malingers, too long it seems to many of us, into
spring. While snowpack usually recedes by the end of March to reveal a ground
plane flattened into uniformity by the literal weight of water, late snowfalls can
annoy or delight one (depending on one’s temperament) well into April and
beyond. One May day not too many years back found me repurposing a hockey
stick to the task of liberating lilac panicles in full bloom from the crushing burden
of six inches of the stuff.
However, despite such meteorological fits, once spring has begun in New
England, it almost always comes on fast and irrepressible, as though some great
switch within the Earth had been flipped. Within a few weeks, our landscape will
reassume its overwhelmingly verdant appearance, literally from the ground up,
as first grasses and forbs, then shrubs, and finally deciduous trees refoliate to
fuel another season of growth and reproduction.
Already, the earliest spring bulbs and corms are gracing gardens great and small
throughout the warmer areas of the Berkshires. Snowdrops and winter aconite
are in flower, quietly ushering in the season, and soon to be replaced by the
symphony of crocus, Narcissus, tulip and squill species that so characterize the
rambunctious month of April.
Before long, shrubs will erupt into bloom as well, and yet long before even
forsythia has spun gold from its chartreuse buds, one genus of woody plants
simply cannot be bothered to wait for spring. Enter the spring-blooming
witch hazels: Hamamelis vernalis, denizen of the woodland understory; the
Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis; and the showy, modern hybrids of the
forementioned species and its Japanese counterpart, Hamamelis x intermedia.
Like the herbaceous perennials of the genus Helleborus (commonly known as
Christmas or Lenten rose), spring witch hazels can bloom as early as February.
Unlike the hellebore, however, these shrubs are not dependent upon a lack of
snow cover to do so. Rather, they simply require mild days during which they
can take advantage of the hunger of the minute gnats, flies, and wasps that may
be out foraging on such days.
This reproductive strategy allows a plant with flowers that would be lost amongst
the smorgasbord of spring and summer to lure in pollinators which have nothing
better to do than gather bits of its pollen and scant nectar. Witch hazels
maximize the benefits of this strategy by employing an interesting, and at least
within the realm of woody plants, nearly unique tactic. In lieu of a continuous
flowering period – a risky endeavor for a winter-blooming plant – they unfurl their
ribbon-like petals only on suitable days, withdrawing them as temperatures dip.
Their ability to perform this dance for up to two months sets the spring witch
hazels within the ranks of the longest-flowering shrubs, and at a time of year
when few expect to see any flowers at all.
Even with this finely-tuned reproductive strategy, witch hazels are nearly
statistically infertile. In our native species, fewer than one percent of flowers are
fertilized, but the shrub expends an unusual degree of energy in ensuring the
viability of the two seeds held within each fruit capsule, allowing them to slowly
mature through the spring and summer before finally expelling them in October.
In terms of parental care, the spring witch hazels are perhaps only exceeded
by their autumnal counterpart, Hamamelis virginiana, which produces flowers
simultaneously with the maturation of the previous year’s fruit and seeds.
With its peculiar, half-inch ribbons of highly variable hue ranging from yellow to
red, our native spring witch hazel is a treat to flower-deprived eyes, yet it pales
in the company of twentieth-century H. x intermedia hybrids such as the classic
yellow ‘Arnold Promise’, the stunning red ‘Diane’, and brilliant copper ‘Jelena’.
If the seeming incongruity of a shrub in full flower amidst drifts of snow has nearly
caused the uninitiated reader a vehicular mishap within the past month, it is likely
to be one of the above that deserves the blame.
And the name? The “witch” is a corruption of an Old English word meaning
pliable, and the “hazel” derives from a historical tendency on the part of English
speakers to ascribe the name “hazel” almost any shrub that possesses a
passing resemblance to the filbert. To paraphrase fictional talk-show host Linda
Richman, “Witch hazels are neither witches nor hazels. Discuss!”
By Terrence Trapp, Director of Horticulture
April 10th, 2013