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Hidden Treasure

October 24, 2015

hamamelis flowersLast July, when a botanist friend was visiting, I asked her to identify a tree growing by the side of my driveway with a leaf I did not recognize. Her identification was prompt and certain: my mystery tree was witch hazel, specifically the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. Once its leaves had been identified for me, I began to notice other small witch hazel trees and seedlings growing along the edge of the woods beside the driveway, and I wondered why I had never noticed the flowers of these fall-blooming trees.

As summer turned into fall, I kept an eye on the largest  witch hazel tree and watched its buds develop and open into fringy yellow flowers. At first, the flowers were difficult to see, because they are small and almost the same color of yellow as the tree’s fall foliage. As the leaves turned from golden yellow to burnt orange and then began to fall from the tree, however, the Hamamelis flowers became much more easily visible. And then I began to notice something else: there were many witch hazel trees blooming throughout the woods to the south and east of my house! When I went for my morning walk, I noticed dozens more blooming at the side of my dirt road, next to my mailbox at the bottom of the road, and all along the nearby paved road!

hamamelis in woods1 hamamelis in woods2

How could I have lived here for 25 years and never noticed any of this before? One explanation is that I was seldom here when the trees were in bloom. I would come up to Maine for my fall break in early October and not return again until Thanksgiving. If the Hamamelis trees were in bloom when I was here in October, their flowers would have been masked by the similarly colored foliage. But what about the years I was on sabbatical and here through the fall? And what about last year, after I retired and was living here full time? I think the witch hazel trees were hiding in plain sight, that I just didn’t have eyes to see.

Now that these hidden treasures have become visible to me, I’m very much enjoying the sight of their blooms. I have always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to grow Hamamelis, because my reference books say that it needs moisture-retentive soil. Seeing how readily H. virginiana grows in the sandy soil of my neighborhood gives me hope that I may also be able to establish H. vernalis in my garden. I have dreams of looking up from my desk in March, when I am suffering from cabin fever and heartily sick of winter, and seeing it blooming outside my study window, a promise of spring.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen Bear permalink
    October 24, 2015 10:24 pm

    How wonderful! Enjoy each day!

    • November 2, 2015 9:37 pm

      Ellen, The witch hazel flowers are now fading, but I have enjoyed the immensely.

  2. October 25, 2015 5:43 am

    Hi Jean, it’s wonder how you managed to miss it after all these years. You should have been able to smell it too. Witch hazels have a reputation for being difficult to establish and slow growing but here you have it thriving and self-seeing along your drive! What a treasure to find.

    • October 26, 2015 11:47 am

      Sunil, I haven’t noticed any particular fragrance to these flowers. At first, I thought it might be because their fragrance is swamped by the strong scent of decaying leaves that permeates our air at this time of year; but yesterday, I stuck my nose up against the flowers and couldn’t smell anything. The references I have looked at indicate that it’s the late winter/early spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, that is strongly fragrant. I imagine Hamamelis virginiana self-seeds easily and thrives here because it is in its native habitat.

  3. October 25, 2015 11:16 am

    Oh you are so lucky. I am still trying to identify my witch hazel….I thought it was the native as I ordered but I fear it is not as it blooms in spring. Still it is a stunning little tree right now.

    • October 26, 2015 11:48 am

      Donna, Hamamelis vernalis is also a native (although of the southeast rather than the northeast) and it blooms in late winter/early spring, so that may be the one you have. It’s the one I would love to grow, as I need those flowers much more in March than I do in October. 😉

  4. October 25, 2015 10:22 pm

    It is amazing what we can see when even just a little bit of light is cast across our path; information and knowledge is such an amazing gift.

    • October 26, 2015 11:50 am

      Charlie, I agree. I’m still amazed that I never noticed these before. But their flowers are small and subtle compared with the flamboyance of fall leaves that are just screaming for attention at this time of year.

  5. October 25, 2015 11:40 pm

    It is funny how we sometimes don’t see something but, once it imprints on our brains, we see it everywhere. Witch hazel seems a very good thing to have take up residence in your visual memory bank. I’d love to see it in my own garden but, alas, it’s not a plant adapted to my area.

    • October 26, 2015 11:51 am

      Kris, This is definitely one of those instances of seeing something easily once you are primed to see it. Happily, witch hazel is very clearly adapted to my area. 🙂

  6. October 27, 2015 4:52 pm

    I have an H. virginiana that is finally achieving some size now that I’m protecting it from rabbits. I should go out and see if it has buds. There are so many things going on around us that we don’t notice until something brings our attention to it.

    • November 2, 2015 9:34 pm

      Jason, I wouldn’t expect to see buds at this time of year. I would think any buds would already have opened into flowers. As I notice more of these every day in my neighborhood, it continues to amaze me that I missed them for all those years.

  7. debsgarden permalink
    October 27, 2015 6:47 pm

    What a delight! I have a witch hazel, but it is not blooming yet. Only one, which I planted. Lucky you to have them naturalized in your woods!

    • November 2, 2015 9:36 pm

      Deb, Most of the witch hazels I see here are quite small, mostly seedlings and small shrub-sized understory trees. But they seem to self-sow quite readily here, and I’m delighted to have them.

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