Image caption: American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom.
There are many varieties of native plants in the gardens at the Field Station, and as the seasons shift to autumn, I’d like to focus on two species that stand out at this time of year.
Everything right now is pumpkin spice, so it’s appropriate to talk about spicebush (Lindera benzoin) or wild allspice. The foliage and twigs are very aromatic, and the bright red berries can be dried and powdered as a spice. Native Americans had a variety of medicinal and culinary uses for spicebush, and it was useful to American colonizers as well, being used as a replacement for allspice during the Revolutionary War and replacing tea in the Civil War (Tucker et al. 1994). Spicebush is also very beneficial to wildlife, the drupes being favored by many species of gamebirds and songbirds. Spicebush is the larval host for the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and the promethea silkmoth (Callosamia promethea). Consider planting spicebush as a replacement for the non-native forsythia, since spicebush also has early yellow flowers but provides greater habitat benefits.
Our other featured plant is American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), which is starting to bloom right now! Witch-hazel has fragrant yellow flowers with long stringy petals that make an attractive food source for pollinators when most other flowers have faded. The seed capsules mature for a year before the seeds are explosively ejected the following fall. Birds and small mammals eat the seeds, while deer and beavers browse the plant. Witch-hazel is notably used as an astringent liniment and has also been used medicinally by Native Americans. Although it sounds spooky, witch-hazel doesn’t get its name from witches, although that is a popular story. The “witch” in witch-hazel derives from the Middle English wyche meaning “pliant,” and not related to those who practiced magic. The crooked branches of witch-hazel were traditionally used for dowsing rods.
In our habitat gardens, spicebush is one of the first shrubs to flower, and witch-hazel is one of the latest to bloom, like seasonal bookends. If you’re out for a hike this autumn, look for the bright yellow flowers of American witch-hazel or the fragrant yellow leaves of Spicebush. Happy fall!
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