The Nature of Eureka


Witch Hazel – my official Thanksgiving flower

I love this time of year when the leaves have let go of their last hope of serving as solar collectors and have sent their energy back to their roots where the great bulk of the tree resides in woody veins and arteries connecting to an infinite network of capillary-like rootlets. They weave through the soil connecting one tree to another, sharing nutrients and information, while intersecting and interacting with mycelium through the fungi mycorrhizal universe, a hidden natural Internet acting largely beyond humanity’s collective awareness.

I love this time of year in the Ozarks, because I see it as the time when the rocks come out to play. It’s the best time for a hike. Ticks and chiggers become rare. Snake radar is turned down to a dull hum. For me, the distraction of endless wildflowers to photograph or my mind busied while trying to identify plants or remember their names goes dormant.

A walk in the woods finds me freed of botanical obsessions. There are exceptions. Witch hazel is one, blooming after the leaves fall off and the air cools. Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms now. And so, every year at this time, I still lug around camera bag and tripod in search of the quintessential witch hazel photograph.

Common witch hazel, mostly founded on north-facing slopes, and its cousin Ozark or vernal witch hazel, (Hamamelis vernalis) which blooms after Christmas to early spring, is mostly found on gravel bars and rocky stream banks. Both are scattered throughout the Arkansas Ozarks. At a time of year when winged-pollinators are presumed gone, one may wonder who in the insect world pollinates witch hazel? The answer is fungus gnats, small flies, small wasps and other insects that come out on a winter’s sunny day.

The previous year’s seedpods also ripen this time of year. These capsules have evolved a rather unique seed dispersal mechanism process, in which as the fruit matures and begins to dry (a year-long process), it starts to split laterally, ever so slowly, until it reaches a point just below the middle of the two very smooth oval seeds encased within.

Once it reaches that point, narrow ends of the seeds are pinched with a force that projects them up to 30 feet away. It’s sort of like the process of squeezing a wet bar of soap from a hand.

I think of witch hazel as a Thanksgiving flower, grateful for its beauty and for revealing the unique awe of nature. I am also grateful to see witch hazel seed capsules; only one of 40,000 flowers produces seeds.