While walking along our trails this time of year, take a moment to admire the Witch Hazel (Hammamelis virginiana). This woodland shrub is plentiful here and, because it is so abundant, does not necessarily get the attention it deserves. Look closely at the leaves. You will find dozens of tiny red-to-pinkish cone shaped structures. These are galls and they resemble a witch’s hat (albeit the wrong color). How fitting for occurring on this shrub?
The galls are caused by the Witch Hazel Cone Gall Aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis). The mother aphid actually caused the plant to form the gall around her and now she is inside, protected, feeding and reproducing. While these galls can be numerous, they are not really harming the plant. Some would say they are an eyesore or blemish, but I think they are a rather interesting part of nature.
Now that you have started to look more closely at Witch Hazel, you may notice hundreds of leaves have been rolled up into tiny cigar-shaped tubes. This is the work of the Witch Hazel Leaf Roller Moth (Dichomeris liguella, aka Palmerworm Moth or Twirler Moth). Each tiny caterpillar has made a home for itself, rolling a leaf which is many times its size. While the evidence of the Witch Hazel Leaf Roller Moth is quite prevalent, more so when spring is dry like it is this year, I can’t say that I have ever spied the adult moth (at one centimeter long) myself.
Witch hazel blooms late in the fall, after the leaves have dropped. The flowers remind me of tiny yellow snowflakes in the bare woods. Witch Hazel extract is an astringent that will keep your skin looking beautiful, naturally, among many other benefits. In fact, Dickinson’s Brands Inc. which produces Dickinson’s Witch Hazel and other products is located just south of our Sanctuary in East Hampton, CT. Branches from this shrub have also been used by many “water witches” as a dousing rod.
Other things that I love about Witch Hazel are the names of the insects which it hosts – they are very straightforward. However, I also wonder how did Witch Hazel earn its name? Is it the almost magical medicinal qualities this plant possesses or the sorcerer-like ability to find water below the ground’s surface? Regardless, this is one admirable witch that deserves your attention.