Another man-made “native” plant
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Witch hazels – the value of variability

A couple of years ago I wrote about the scent of our native witch hazel here in Pennsylvania, Hamamelis virginiana, wafting through the woods. Well, it’s that time again and, as usual, while some specimens along the roadside and in the woods are blooming on bare branches some still have their buttery leaves intact.

Hamamelis virginiana: four forms from the same Pennsylvania population. Image:© In fact, taking a closer look yesterday it’s remarkable how different individual bushes are. Click on the picture to enlarge it and you’ll see four flowering shoots from four plants all growing within fifteen yards of each other. (OK, perhaps I shouldn’t have used the Euonymus alatus in the garden as a background; sorry).

On the left is a shoot from a plant with plenty of flowers - but they’re over and the seed capsules are starting to form. Next is one in its prime with large flowers and plenty of them. Next is one with large flowers but fewer and with the foliage still in place and when you look at the plant from a distance you’d hardly notice the flowers. And on the right is one with relatively few slightly smaller flowers.

Now this variability is a feature which aids the long term survival of the species. For example, variability in flowering time helps ensure that if ferocious fall weather prevents insect pollination of one plant - and forty six different genera of insects have been recorded visiting the American witch hazel in search of nectar – then a plant flowering a week earlier or a week later may well be pollinated successfully.

And this is why, when restoring habitat, it pays to raise the plants from seed so that this valuable variability is more likely to be preserved. All plants of a named clone are, by definition, identical.

There's lots more fascinating information on both American and Asian Hamamelis in the only book on these essential shrubs - Witch Hazels by Clive Lane. Order it from, or order it from