often, too much gardening is all about spring and
and winter-flowering plants like witch hazel change all
that, according to native plant expert Helen Hamilton, a
Williamsburg Virginia resident who taught biology,
chemistry and earth science for 30 years. She is past
president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native
Plant Society, and co-author of "Wildflowers and
Grasses of Virginia’s Coastal Plain."
yellow, strap-shaped flowers cover native witch hazel
October through December," she says.
are available that bloom in deep winter, under snow and
ice in January, with reddish-gold ribbons of
plant, scientifically known as Hamamelis virginiana,
requires insect pollination, and biologists have been
puzzled about how a pollinating insect could be flying
in cold weather. In a 1987 article in Scientific
American magazine, Bernd Heinrich describes how some
species of owlet moth are active in winter, Hamilton
noted. When temperatures are below freezing, they rest
and hide under leaves for insulation and protection.
They find food at night and raise their body temperature
by shivering to warm up. They generally feed on the sap
of injured trees, but are known to take nectar from the
blossoms of witch hazel, which fertilizes the flowers.
summer, witch hazel branches are covered with lustrous
dark green leaves, slightly pointed with somewhat wavy
edges. The small, pointed growths often seen on some of
the leaves are the homes of the witch hazel cone gall
aphid, which is harmless to the plant, according to
a later-flowering witch hazel, there’s Hamamelis x
intermedia, a hybrid of two Asian species — H.
japonica and H. mollis. Blooming January through March,
it has bronze to deep-red flowers, depending upon the
cultivar; the leaves turn yellow, orange and red in
fall. Also, there’s the Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis),
noted for its larger yellow flowers and stronger
fragrance, according to Hamilton.
other witch hazel species native to North America —
Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) and Leonard’s Witch
Hazel (H. ovalis) — occur only in a few southeastern
states. The nursery trade uses these species to form
hybrids, according to Hamilton
origin of "witch" in this plant’s name is a
mystery, but it may have come from Middle English wiche,
meaning "plant" or "bendable,"
Hamilton adds. Some believed a tea made from the leaves
or bark had magical powers. Native Americans thought
there was something very strange about a plant blooming
in the dead of winter.
hazel has long been used as a nonprescription drug to
relive itching, hemorrhoids and minor pains.
nicknamed plant lice, are small, soft-bodied insects,
according to Hamilton. There are hundreds of different
species of aphids, some of which attack only one host
plant while others attack numerous hosts. Most aphids
are green and black, but their bodies can be gray,
brown, pink, red, yellow or lavender. A characteristic
common to all is the presence of two tubes, called
cornicles, on the back ends of their bodies. Some
species, known as wooly aphids, are covered with white,
feed in clusters and generally prefer new succulent
shoots or young leaves. The tiny insects feed by sucking
up plant juices through a food channel in their beaks.
At the same time, they inject saliva into the host and
may transmit plant diseases as they feed, she adds.
Light infestations usually do not harm plants, but bad
infestations can cause leaf curl, wilting, stunted shoot
growth, slower fruit and flower production and general
also cause a sticky honeydew substance to collect on
lower leaves, which can be covered by fungi known as
sooty molds. These crusty molds interrupt the
food-making photosynthesis process in leaves.
plants are growing vigorously, check them twice a week
to catch infestations early, which is a good time to
remove them with a blast of cold water or to prune them
out, Hamilton suggests. Many aphids cause the worst
damage in late spring before temperatures rise.