Sunday, January 31, 2010

Witch Hazel

Out for a ATV cruise in six inches of snow, my face masked against the twenty degree wind, the last thing on my mind was looking for blooming flowers.  Barb had me stop at the creek crossing, and sure enough, there were tiny yellow petals with a red base, clustered on bare shrub branches.  It was Ozark witch hazel announcing the beginning of a new year.
Witch hazel come in two varieties in the Ozarks, shrubs which rarely grow into small trees and tend to be found growing in gravel and rocky stream beds and along streams.  These are Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) that Barb planted several years ago along the graveled riparian edge of Bull Creek.  The scientific name is unusually descriptive.  Hamasmelis means "together with fruit," describing the unusual appearance of next year's leaf buds appearing at the same time as the flowers and fruit.  It is also called Winterbloom in honor of the flowers which can appear on the bare stems in the dead of winter.  The species vernalis or 'spring' refers to its being the first woody species to bloom in the year.
It's cousin, Eastern witch hazel (H. virginiana) is the last woody species to bloom in the year, late fall or early winter.  Its flowers are yellow and the petals are longer.  The fruit of both species form a hard woody capsule which splits open in the fall, about eight months after flowering, ejecting one or two hard black seeds "forcibly discharged to a distance of up to 30 feet."*   Another name for the shrub is "Snapping Hazel".
You may have come across "witch hazel" on the pharmacy shelves.  An astringent compound extracted from the leaves and bark is used in aftershave lotions and to shrink hemorrhoids, (although thankfully in totally separate compounds.)

A good gallery of pictures can be found at the bottom of this Wikipedia page.
*Kurz, Don, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri, 1997

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