Witch Hazel Blooms
As we move out of summer and into autumn, our hydrangea collection fades out while our witch hazel collection starts to bloom. You can find our collection, comprised of 70 different varieties, representing all the witch hazel species scattered throughout the Park. Not only is the witch hazel a permanent seasonal collection plant in our garden beds, they are one of five plants our horticulturists keep phenological data on.
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Witch hazels are a small genus of fall and winter-blooming shrubs and small trees. Three of the species are native to the Americas, including Hamamelis virginiana, H. vernalis, and H. ovalis. The remaining two species, H. japonica and H. mollis are natives of Japan and eastern China respectively. Asian species of witch hazel and their hybrids generally flower in the winter, from January through March. Most of the North American natives are autumn bloomers, bearing flowers starting in October through December. North American species have yellow flowers and golden fall foliage making the flowers difficult to see. For this reason, many plant hybrids have been developed between Asian species with pink, purple, and orange flowers and the yellow blooming North American species.
Witch hazels are not difficult to grow and are partial to soils that are acidic, well-draining and moist, as well as high in organic matter. Witch hazels may be grown in conditions ranging from full sun to part shade, though they flower best in full sun locations. Their preference for consistent moisture means they will wilt during droughts if not irrigated or mulched.
Witch hazels are pollinated by owlet moths, species from the superfamily Noctuoidea. These moths remain active when winter temperatures drop to near freezing. In daytime and when temperatures are below freezing they hide on the ground under insulating leaf cover. During the night, the moths awaken to find food in which they they shiver to warm themselves enough to fly. As they feed from flower to flower, they carry pollen on their bodies, pollinating the witch hazels. Owlet moths are important foods for both birds and bats at Madison Square Park.
- The botanical name for witch hazels, Hamamelis, comes from a Greek word meaning, literally, “at the same time with fruit”, as the fruit takes a year to develop and is often seen on the plant concurrent with new flowers
- Witch hazels are in the family Hamamelidaceae and are related to as winter hazels (Corylopsis), fothergilla (Fothergilla), and Persian Ironwood (Parrotia), all of which can also be found here at the park
- The petals of witch hazel flowers curl up close to the sepals in cold weather, unfurling again when the temperature rises
- Witch hazel seed pods explosively dehisce after maturation, splitting open and ejecting seeds with sufficient force to eject them up to 30 feet away; this is the source of one of their common names, Snapping Hazel
- Witch hazel extract is used topically as an astringent, which tightens the skin