For many years I have struggled with the memory of spring-blooming witch-hazels on the slopes of Camel’s Hump, the second highest mountain in Vermont. My then-girlfriend and I drove up from Somerville and went camping for a night in one of the small cabins that the Green Mountain Club maintains along the trail. It was, I think, late March or April, as the weather was fairly balmy, but there were not yet leaves on the trees. (It did snow lightly over night.)
We parked at the Long Trail trailhead along the Duxbury Road, which follows the Winooski River, . We didn’t get very far up the mountain, never getting anywhere the spruce forest near the crown. Instead we hiked under leafless maples and birches and occasionally passed through clumps of shrubs decked with yellow flowers. The four petals looked like thin tendrils of shredded paper. I can’t recall if this registered as odd at the time. It certainly registered as beautiful, which is why I still remember it almost 30 years later.
Hamamelis virginiana, the common witch-hazel of the northeastern United States, is noteworthy for many reasons, but in this context what is most strange is that it flowers in the late autumn, after the leaves have fallen, generally between October and late November. It is generally accepted that this is an adaptation to avoid competition with other shrubs, including another member of its genus H. vernalis, the range of which is centered on the Ozark Mountains, where it flowers in very early spring.
According the researchers at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, H. virginiana is pollinated by a variety of insects, but bees and flies do most of the work. The pollen is not effectively transported by wind. The Connecticut botanists found that less than 1 percent of the flowers actually set fruit, a very low percentage as plants go.
Witch-hazels are frequently planted as ornamentals because of their “off season” flowering in the late fall and early spring. Asian species have been introduced and many cultivars have been produced. H. japonica (Japanse witch-hazel) and H. mollis (Chinese witch-hazel) in the late witnter to very early spring.
The hybrids of these two Asian species are generally called Hamamelis x intermedia with the cultivar name appended (e.g. ‘Arnold Promise’). Given that we were walking on the very well-traveled Long Trail there is the vague possibility that some hiker with a cultivar seed in his boot tread may have planted these spring-blooming witch-hazel on Camel’s Hump years ago, but the mountain is firmly in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone 4 and the intermedia cultivars are generally hardy only to Zone 5. Plus there were quite a few of these shrubs, if memory serves.
The American hazel (Corylus americana) blooms in the spring, but the female flowers look like little red stumps and the male flowers look like catkins (because it is a member of the birch family, Betulaceae). The witch-hazel and the hazel have generally similar leaves: rounded, roughly toothed, but otherwise don’t much resemble each other.
The “witch” part of the name doesn’t actually refer to Wicca practitioners, but to the tradition of using the young straight branches for dowsing. Dowsers are occasionally called “water witches,” which only contributes to the confusion. But the root is the Anglo-Saxon word wych, meaning “bendable.” The hazel branch in the hands of a dowser bends downward when it is over water. So witch-hazel is a shrub that looks something like a hazel (also called a filbert) with branches that are good for witching.
I have looked through the internet to see if I can find references to spring-blooming populations of H. virginiana, and I have had no luck. The possibility exists that my memory is faulty and we went up there in the late fall after the leaves dropped. I have photographs or slides of the trip somewhere. I’ll have to dig them out and see if there is a date on them.