A Halloween Plant

I smell the spicy fragrance of your pale yellow, spidery flowers just as leaves change color and fall to the ground in late October. On some bare twigs where flowers ought to be are weird spiky sputniks. These light green protuberances are shelters for the spiny witch hazel bud gall aphids, Hamamelistes spinosus, whose name is as bewildering as a spell might be. These are formed as your bud tissue is enticed to envelope a feeding, sucking aphid as she nestles on your branches in springtime. The resultant gall is food and shelter for her and her brood throughout the summer. 

Ants climb all over your galls looking for honeydew, which is exuded by the developing aphids. An age-old trick if ever there was one! Ants will milk for a sugary treat and defend an expanding colony of aphids in return. Eventually, the spiny galls turn brown and crack open to release mature aphids, which fly off to form further galls, as warty bumps on the leaves of a birch tree.

Mystery abounds over which insect is the likely to pollinate your strange strap-like flowers so late in the season. Happenstance is that owlet moths visit you under the cover of dusk. They arise from their daytime refuge in fallen leaves to feed, keeping themselves warm in the cold evening air by rapidly shivering and thus distributing pollen. 

Your fruit is a hard gray capsule, from which you exercise your potency by forcibly expelling shiny black seeds to a distance of 20 to 40 feet.

For centuries you have been known for your medicinal powers. Potions made from your bark and leaves are used as a mild antiseptic, astringents and toners for the skin. 

Your common name is derived from the Middle English word “wiche”, meaning pliable. Your bendable stems are still used to this day as water divining or dowsing tools to find underground sources of water. Another name for this ancient practice is water witching.

You are witch hazel. 

Hamamelis virginiana.

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