A beautiful autumn mystery – solved

After the leaves have fallen and gardens have shriveled, the witch hazel declares, “The show must go on.”

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Hamamelis virginiana, a species of witch hazel, flowers in late fall.

Maine is blessed with warm and resplendent, albeit short, summers and brilliant falls when the colors pour forth from the woodlands like fire. After these main attractions there follows a sort of in-between time, when we hold our breaths in anticipation of winter. This Novemberish/early Decemberish period can best be described by the word “bleak.” The trees are bare, the sky is heavy with low, roving clouds, and every week seems to bring a cold, persistent rain. 

And yet there is reason for hope. Right in my front yard.

A few years ago I planted witch hazel for no other reason than its appealing name. “Witch” may refer to its forklike branches, which old-time dowsers used to “witch” for water. Be this as it may, I planted the diminutive whip in front of the house, near a plain, windowless, western-facing wall. It must have liked the spot, because it has done magnificently and now stands about 9 feet tall, on its way to becoming a small tree. 

The thing about witch hazel – and this is significant, given the grayness of this in-between time in Maine – is that it blooms in mid-November. Yes, that’s right. After the leaves have fallen and the maples, poplars, and oaks stand bare and bereft; after the vegetable garden has died back and the tomato plants have shriveled and blackened; even after the hardy and persistent dandelion has no more to give, witch hazel pulls itself together and announces, “The show must go on.”

And a lovely, if understated, show it is. The blossoms of Hamamelis virginiana are small, bright yellow, frilly things. And appropriately patient: They wait until the plant has lost its leaves, the better to stand out against the naked branches. 

The thing is, I never appreciated the blooms until recently, because my witch hazel is tucked between a massive lilac and a honeysuckle. So why remark upon it now? 

Let me explain.

I mentioned that I planted the witch hazel in front of a bare wall. Last summer, I hired a carpenter to put a small window in that wall. He did the deed, and I was rewarded with a perfectly framed, rather Zen, view of the witch hazel from my bedroom. When I rise in the morning, it dominates my first glimpse of the world without.

When the middle of November arrived, however, the scene changed. Seemingly overnight, the witch hazel’s leaves had fallen, replaced by blossoms that looked like cheerleaders’ pompoms after a particularly energetic pep rally. And yet, here was color amid all the gray; here were harbingers of a season – spring – that was already on the calendar, pending an intervening winter.

This odd bloom time piqued the interest of the scientist in me. Why now? I asked myself. All the pollinating insects were dead or dormant. Who, besides me, could witch hazel be showing off for? The answer came late one evening when, on a whim, I shined a flashlight through the window from inside the house, just to see if the blossoms were still hanging on in the growing cold. I was surprised to see a few small moths fluttering about, and settling on, the flowers. Aha. So it’s they who move the witch hazel’s genes along. 

I went to bed well satisfied for having solved a mystery. And yet it was a bit of a letdown as well, as I had thought this blooming-in-November stuff was strictly for my benefit. No matter. I’ve come around to accepting that witch hazel has charms to spare for both man and moth.

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