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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Witch Hazel

Oddly enough there is no definition for “woods” in Webster’s dictionary. To find the meaning of the word, one must adopt what I feel is a more British sensibility and look under the word “wood.” Here we find a definition that reads, “a thick growth of trees; forest or grove.” Webster’s defines the word “forest” as, “a thick growth of trees and underbrush covering an extensive tract of land,” whereas a grove is a “small wood or group of trees without underbrush.” Here in America, we seem to use the words, “forest” and “woods” interchangeably.

I suppose I ponder such things because of the current Tolkien craze and the arrival of a movie based on “The Hobbit.” I have been familiar with this book since I was a child. My father, who was a truly wonderful father to grow up with, somehow found the energy to read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy out loud to us when my brother, sister and I were all quite young. When he finished we would say, “do it again!” and, somehow, he would. During these month-long story sessions he would often have to call a halt when his voice gave out. But there was always story time the following night.

Everyone familiar with “The Hobbit” knows of the dangers and perils to be found in Mirkwood Forest, but as an adult, I cannot help but think the name is just a little redundant. Mirkwood is sufficient to convey the image of the place and adding “forest” seems a bit silly. However, the two words do have a much more ominous sound when put together and who am I to argue with the master?

OK, I’m talking about forests today. Here’s why. I recently heard one of those interesting cultural sayings in a conversation about hydrofracking. One person accused another of not being able to see the forest for the trees, which is generally meant to imply that a person cannot see the big picture because he is fixating on the details. This makes a great deal of sense to me because whenever we hear the word “forest” we immediately think about trees and seldom think about all of the other organisms that call such places home.

But here’s the funny thing: in an odd way we fixate on the largest details and forget to look at the smaller ones. A forest is filled with plant life, but the trees command much of our attention. The underbrush, however, is something we acknowledge without really scrutinizing. Species like musclewood, spicebush, and hobblebush may be completely unknown to anyone but the most experienced woodsmen because they are small and do not immediately grab you attention.

There is another species of similarly unimpressive stature that may actually be known to a broader group of people simply because of its purported medicinal qualities. Any guesses before I continue? The species I am speaking of is witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana); a species used in over-the-counter remedies to this day. But how much do we know about this mysterious species?

I first learned to identify this species while working as a field technician for the U.S. Forest Service. Most of this work took place on the Quabbin Reservoir’s famous Prescott Peninsula, a locality most noteworthy for its restricted access. If you want a place to seem interesting, all you have to do is tell people they aren’t allowed in.

Anyway, as a college student looking for real-world work experience in the field of wildlife biology, I found my way onto a team of other UMass students who regularly visited the Prescott Peninsula to assist in research concerning the effects of large deer populations on forest regeneration. The great concern was that large numbers of deer would eat everything within reach. So, one of the things we did was make surveys of the understory. Witch hazel is a rather small, shrubby species, so it was definitely an understory species.

I have not included any photographs of a witch hazel bush because it really wouldn’t look like much of anything. The stems grow in clusters of variable number, but the basic growth form is one best described as spindly. Imagine the tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and you have the idea. If you were to take a machete, cut a few slender branches off trees in the forest and then stick them all into the ground at one point you could create a fair approximation of a witch hazel bush. This species seems to exist in an obscurity similar to that of the pussy willow; it’s there, but not too obvious.

Because of the timing of my work with the Forest Service, I became familiar with witch hazel in late fall, winter and spring. Because this is a time when few leaves still cling to plants, I was forced to identify witch hazel by its buds, which are extremely easy to recognize because of their asymmetry and their delightful resemblance to the foot of a rabbit or a deer. We thought so, anyway, and I can never see these buds without thinking of the feet of these mammals.

What I never really noticed, until years later, was the oddity of the witch hazel with regard to its flowering. In the fall, when most species of plants are spreading their seeds, witch hazel spreads open its flowers. These are quite small and have an extensive blooming time due to the general scarcity of pollinators at such a late date. Flies and gnats seem to do the majority of the work, but in the absence of pollinators, the flowers can also self-pollinate.

To protect its embryos from the harsh conditions of winter, the witch hazel can delay fertilization of the ovules until spring. This is a technique used by a variety of mammals to protect future mothers from the stress of pregnancy during the winter. A fertilized egg will remain in suspended animation for months until a change in season will afford more hospitable conditions for both mother and newborn offspring. In the case of the witch hazel, it actually delays fertilization.

The spindly flowers of these spindly bushes will eventually stop blooming in December and will show no activity until the ovaries begin to swell in the spring. Leaves also emerge at this point and they are best described as irregular. There is an obvious asymmetry at the base of each leaf and the edges are wavy or jagged. Several species of small, obscure moths call the witch hazel home in the summer. Some of my favorite names are the mustard sallow, the figure seven and the dagger moth; none of which I have ever seen, but all of which I would like to find in 2013.

The cycle comes full circle in the fall when the ripened seedpods can be found next to the new flowers. These pods have evolved an interesting approach to seed dispersal. They build up pressure in their fleshy coatings and then burst open, hurling the seeds as far as 20 feet from their parents. The seeds (there are two per pod and they are black in color) then lie dormant on the ground for two winters before germinating. Everything about this bush seems to be odd and delayed, but life in the understory may be more challenging than we can imagine.

Winter can be a wonderful time to explore forests, especially if you have a pair of snowshoes. If you should find yourself in a forest with a large number of oaks or hickories, you may also be able to find witch hazels growing closer to the ground. You’ll have to look closely for the buds and you may also find the remnants of the flowers; small four-pointed cups in twos and threes on short little stems. It’s a challenge, but that makes the location of such a treasure all the more rewarding.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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