Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a tall deciduous shrub, with multiple arched, spreading main trunks, forming an irregular open crown. The leaves of witch hazel can be identified by their asymmetrical base, and their coarse, rounded teeth. It is native to woodlands, forest margins and stream banks in eastern North America; more often than not, the witch hazel shrubs I find are indeed along stream banks. Although rarely found east of Barnstable, witch hazel is fairly common in the rocky woodlands along the glacial moraine on upper Cape Cod.
By mid-October, many of the fall flowers, such as goldenrods and asters are starting to be past their prime, but it is only now that witch hazel starts to bloom. While skunk cabbage is our earliest blooming flower, witch hazel is our latest. After most trees and shrubs have started to lose their leaves, witch hazel puts forth clusters of 4-petaled, spindly yellow flowers, with narrow, twisted petals. These flowers will persist on the shrub well after the leaves have dropped, and often persist into December.
Fertilized flowers will take almost a year to develop into mature fruit; the process lasts throughout winter and into the following growing season. Fruits begin as greenish seed capsules that become brown and woody with age. The following fall, each seed capsule splits open, catapulting its small black seeds up to 30 feet. The genus name Hamamelis comes from the Greek words hama meaning “at same time” and melon meaning “apple or fruit”, referencing the fact that witch hazel produces both fruit (from the previous year’s flowers) and new flowers at the same time.