None of my botanical handbooks explain why the witch hazel blooms in October and November, even as its leaves are falling to the ground. Where are the insects that will pollinate the blossoms? Donald Stokes, who has written a wonderful book on wild shrubs and vines, tells of watching witch hazel in bloom and seeing no visitors but ants. Thoreau records in his journal the visit of a bee to one of these late-blooming trees. Perhaps the witch hazel is nature’s “all-night cafe,” where the few insects of early winter can find a bite to eat when the regular establishments are closed. The tree has these late-season customers all to itself.
In any other season witch hazel would be inconspicuous. “Witch” in the tree’s name may derive from the Old English wych, meaning “weak.” The tree is not much more than a sprawling shrub and its blossoms are unkempt tangles of scraggly ribbons. But even this anemic display of color is welcome. Stubbornly out of step with the seasons, the witch hazel is a touch of spring in cruel November, a touch of birth in death. Thoreau, with customary transcendence, called the witch hazel thicket “a faery place… a part of the immortality of the soul.”
The Halloween-blooming witch hazel is certainly a bewitching tree. Its sorcery cheered my spirits when I saw that yellow thicket at the edge of the woods. Any tree that puts on such a springlike show on the cusp of winter deserves the admiration of all of us who have entered the autumn of our lives.”