November in Bloom
While everyone else was enjoying the early snow last week, I caught myself looking for flowers.
These flowers might not be as pretty as a Painted Trillium or as well known as the Pink Lady Slipper Orchid, but they are unusual in that they bloom in October and November.
What is that yellow fungus growing on some of the smaller trees? –Ben C., Visitor to the Blue Ridge Parkway from Hickory
That “fungus” is actually the flower of the Southern Witch-hazel tree (Hamamelis virginiana). You should not be embarrassed in not knowing its correct name. I have heard this flower called many names: tree confetti, dirty coconut flakes, fairy fireworks, zombie corsages.
The blooms are about one-inch wide with four bright yellow petals and grow in clusters all along the branches of the common Witch-hazel tree. They are most easily seen in autumn after most other trees have lost their leaves.
Once pollinated, it takes the tree a year to form its small fruits, which split explosively at the apex of their maturity. The contracting capsule can eject its small seed as far as 30 feet. This is just one more reason to take a closer look at the Witch-hazel tree, though there are a few more.
Ladies, you are right in your recognition of the tree name. I use a Witch-hazel astringent to clean my face every night. The aromatic extract of leaves, twigs, and bark is mild and cleansing.
The tree was even more popular in history than it is today.
Native Americans were known to treat inflammation of the skin with a Witch-hazel tonic. The Iroquois used Witch-hazel to make a strong tea for dysentery, to treat colds and cough, and as a blood purifier.
Early settlers preferred this tree to any other for use as a divining rod. They would cut a forked branch from the tree, hold on to the two ends of the “Y” and point the tip at the ground. The branch would start to twitch when over a good supply of ground water. Many wells were dug as a result of the divining rod’s discoveries.
Current studies show that you are just as likely to find groundwater by chance as with a Witch-hazel twig.
For the past two hundred years, all generations of Americans have used Witch-hazel, whether they know it or not. It could be found in your hemorrhoid cream. You might find it on the ingredient list of your bug-bite salve.
But chances are great that this underdog of autumn can most easily be found right out in your backyard. Get out there and explore.
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org) All of your questions will be answered. One will be featured next week. See you on the trails!
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.