Sunday, November 7, 2010

Binoculars for Your Nose

Eastern Witch Hazel is the last tree to bloom in the Midwest. AMcC

I stepped outside on a calm autumn night last week. A fresh, citrus scent was in the air. It reminded me of witch hazel in bloom. That couldn’t be, of course, because my big hybrid witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise”) blooms in February. Then I remembered my other witch hazel tree, a scrawny little guy, completely overshadowed by big brother Arnold and my neighbor’s silver maples. When I bought my home in the 1980s, I knew I wanted a witch hazel tree. I was in love with the one that bloomed by the east wall of the Missouri Botanical Garden in late winter. I knew there was a native variety, but I wasn’t aware of any native plant nurseries in my areas at the time. I ordered Eastern witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) from a native plant nursery in the Appalachian Mountains and planted it about the same time as the Asian hybrid. According to Don Kurz’ book, Trees of Missouri, I ended up with a tree that is native to the Ozarks, though not to St. Louis County, Missouri. Two short decades zipped by with only the puniest of blooms, on the slenderest of twigs. Now this fragrance in November…

The next morning I confirmed it; my skinny 12 foot-tree was covered in bloom! The scent is wonderful, but it can be elusive. You can stand right next to a branch in full bloom and not be aware of it. You can be twenty feet away in the dark and know it instantly. Like all scent, it’s hard to describe with words: something like an orange, but lighter. I say full bloom, but that’s “full” by witch hazel standards. The petals are narrow ribbons of yellow, half-inch-long or a bit more. The blooms are often clustered together, without stems. 

With a shovel and a bit of determination, it’s not too hard to remake your perennial border. It’s a little tougher to remedy mistakes with trees and shrubs. If I were to remake the trees in my yard, I’d give my Eastern witch hazel a spot with more light, farther away from it’s winter-blooming relative. Both are covered in golden leaves in fall. One is the last tree of the year to bloom; the other is the first. 

According to John Hilty’s website, “Illinois Wildflowers,” Eastern witch hazel is pollinated by flies, but also a few moths, wasps and beetles. The plant doesn’t need showy petals, streaked with guides to direct butterflies and honey bees to the goodies. It does need scent, and so do I.

Scent may be the most neglected of human senses, but it’s more important than we admit. Grocery store shelves are filled with scented candles, scented oils, scented gel sticks, scented night lights, and scented trash bags. A popular fabric softener comes in 23 different varieties. On their website, you can search by “scent type”: “airy fresh” or “modern exotic.” 100 ml. spray bottles of perfume (3.4 oz) can sell for $100 and up. Gas stations sell air fresheners too. They say “New Car Scent” just flies off the shelf. Fragrance is of the essence in the garden for both humans and pollinators, as I mentioned in “Creatures of the Night.” It might be nice to have a device to amplify our sense of smell. Binoculars for your nose, perhaps?


  1. For the first time, all three of my witch hazel bushes are in bloom, although one is just barely blooming. The odd thing is that the one in the middle began blooming at least two weeks before the others.

  2. Are the 3 bushes/trees related? Just wondering if the middle one is different genetically, or if it gets better soil/water/sun?

  3. I've not yet seen H. virginiana in bloom, but I did see a profusion of H. vernalis in peak bloom this past March along the Taum Sauk and Mina Sauk Trails - how spectacular.

  4. Things that bloom in March are so welcome, especially on a beautiful trail like Taum Sauk.

  5. Ann, the three shrubs were the same size when I bought them at Forest Keeling. I planted them the same day; they are about 6-7 feet apart. I think the issue is microclimates: the third (smallest) is the least sheltered because of an ancient forsythia the size of an adirondack. It probably gets a tiny bit more pine needles, so its soil could be marginally more acidic. The forsythia is on the side of the prevailing wind, which can be substantial

  6. Interesting how plants can perform so differently in seemingly similar habitats. And for those not familiar with the Jefferson County word "adirondack," Laura means "of a size about 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet." Thanks for your comment Laura!