The Nature of Eureka

59

Witch Hazel Time

I love this time of year when leaves of contrasting color differentiate our deciduous woody plants, revealing hidden gems from the summer sea of green. This, too, is the time of year that eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms with its small, inch-across, spidery yellow flowers with narrow strap-like petals.

They have little to no scent. Once the leaves have dropped, they reveal themselves.

The genus Hamamelis, includes five or six species, to which eastern witch hazel belongs is an ancient plant group, predating human by tens-of-millions of years, and once spreading across the continents of the northern hemisphere, when they were all stitched together as one, before slowly drifting apart, now divided by great oceans.

In North America, three species are now recognized, including the widespread eastern witch hazel blooming now.

A new species first described in 2006, southern red witch-hazel or bigleaf witch hazel (Hamamelis ovalis), is known from a few locations in pinelands of east Texas, southern Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the western Florida Panhandle. Our Ozark endemic vernal witch hazel or Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), like the newly discovered red witch-hazel, has red-tinted flowers toward the center, bleeding into yellow toward the tip of the petals.

The Ozark witch hazel, blooming in early spring further north, begins blooming in the southern Ozarks at the end of December or early January, and its flowers have a luscious cinnamon-vanilla scent in the dead of winter! It is native to the interior highlands of Missouri, Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma.

Some botanists also recognize a species closely related to Ozark witch hazel in from a small mountain range in northeast Mexico as Hamamelis mexicana.

Japanese witch hazel (Hamamelis japonica), one of two Asian species, is found in mountains forests of southern Japan. One more species is found in China—Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), widespread in seven provinces of central and southern China.

Recent genetic studies show that the North American and Asian species are not as closely related as once thought and evolved separately on both continents. Ironically, many of the cultivated varieties (cultivars) in the nursery trade are selections or hybrids involving the Asian species.

While many mark the beginning of the holiday season by anticipating Black Friday sales, for me the start of the holiday season is when witch hazels begin to bloom.

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