Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Wildflower Wednesday: Hamamelis vernalis and the WW Challenge


Welcome to Clay and Limestone and the first Wildflower Wednesday post of 2023. Our star is vernal witchhazel and she's a beauty! I say her because the one in my garden is named Bernice...No, not a cultivar, but that story is for another time. 


I've decided to continue the WW Challenge into 2023 and beyond. It's a call for doing at least one thing a month to support nature/garden critters/etc. I will include an idea list each month. Long time readers know that I've been an advocate of gardening with native plants and the critters that visit and live in our gardens since my early blogging days. Back then I fell in love with the bumbles that were visiting my garden and wrote many posts about pollinators of all kinds. I also loved sharing posts about the native wildflowers that supported those critters and began Wildflower Wednesday. It's been at least a dozen years since  that first Wildflower Wednesday meme post. I invited others to share their wildflower star of the month and many did. I continue to use the Wildflower Wednesday posts to call attention to our native plants that have co-evolved with critters in a mutually dependent manner. Co-adaptation is easiest to see with insects/pollinators and flowering plants in our gardens. Researchers have found at least three traits that flowering plants have evolved to attract pollinators: (source)

  • Distinct visual cues: flowering plants have evolved bright colors, stripes, patterns, size  and colors specific to the pollinator. For example, flowering plants seeking to attract insect pollinators are typically blue an ultraviolet, whereas red and orange are designed to attract birds.     
  • Scent: flowering plants use scents as a means of instructing insects as to their location. Since scents become stronger closer to the plant, the insect is able to hone-in and land on that plant to extract its nectar.     
  • Some flowers use chemical and tactile means to mimic female insect species to attract the male species.


Let's consider our January star with co-evolution in mind.

Hamamelis vernalis is a lovely native shrub/small tree that blooms when you have just about given up hope that winter will end and warmth will return to the world. In my Middle Tennessee garden it began blooming the first week in January. It's not unusual for it to continue blooming into February and sometimes March.


Ozark witch hazel's flowers are an unusual reddish color with four yellow/orange crepe paper streaming petals that unfurl as the day warms and furl back up when the temperature drops. This is a marvelous adaptive behavior that insures that the spidery blooms will survive the fluctuating winter weather and be in bloom for almost two months. This is super important in ensuring that any pollinating critters that are out and about on warmer days will find their way to the lovely flowers.

They perfume the garden with their sweet clove vanilla scent on warm days. It's no accident that most winter blooming plants have some fragrance...Nature had to insure that insect pollinators could easily find their way to a plant that blooms when most of the garden is fast asleep. I've seen honeybees in the garden on days where the temperatures are above 50˚, but, have only seen small gnats and flies visiting the beautiful fragrant flowers of vernal witchhazel.

Witch hazels are indeed insect pollinated flowers, just check these clues out: They have long, bright-yellow petals, sweet smelling nectar and their stamens (pollen-bearing male bits) are right next to the nectar source. But, how you wonder is insect pollination possible in mid winter? Bernd Heinrich discovered that winter moths are responsible for pollinating witch hazels. These owlet moths have a remarkable ability to heat themselves by using energy to shiver, raising their body temperatures by as much as 50 degrees in order to fly in search of food.  (source).

Nature and its critters are amazing!

The flowers are deep to bright red, rarely all yellow, with four ribbon-shaped petals 7–10 mm (0.28–0.39 in) long and four short stamens, and grow in clusters

I do have garden guidelines that I strive to follow. Simply stated I like to plant a mixture of Central Basin natives that have good to excellent wildlife value and that provide bloom as close to year round as is possible in a middle south garden. I have occasionally pushed the envelope and planted perennials and shrubs that are native to adjacent states or that grow in conditions similar to Clay and Limestone*.  I pushed that envelope when I decided to plant Hamamelis vernalis/Ozark witch-hazel. It's found growing in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri.  I planted them for the earliest visiting pollinators and for its delightful perfume. It's happy in the garden, it gets pollinated by visiting critters and that makes me happy.

That's my story and I am sticking to it! Although, there is another reason I planted Bernice! I planted her as a memorial to my mother, who bloomed in the winter of her life, too. xoxo

 If you want to grow this Central South/Southern native shrub just give it a partially shady location with good morning sun, moist acid soil. It tolerates Clay and Limestone's more neutral soil, so, I am pretty sure you can have success with it, too. It has great fall leaf color, attracts pollinators, and blooms for two months.

 The Particulars

Hamamelis vernalis
Common Name: Ozark witch hazel
Family: Hamamelidaceae
Type: Deciduous shrub or small tree
Native Range: Southern and central United States in rocky stream banks, in moist open woodlands. Although not listed as a Tennessee native I found this quote on the Illinois Extension Center site "A near native species, the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is native to streambanks and wet woodland of the southern US, from parts of Texas and Florida north to Missouri, as well as most of the eastern US."
Zone: 4 to 8
Height: 6.00 to 10.00 feet
Spread: 8.00 to 15.00 feet
Bloom Time: January to April if weather remains cool.                                                                      Bloom Description: Yellow with red inner calyx
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium, consistently moist. NOT drought tolerant
Maintenance: Low, does not need to be pruned
Suggested Use: Rain Garden, along creek banks,
Flower: Showy, Fragrant
Leaf: Good Fall color
Usage: Please plant them where you will be sure to appreciate them during the winter months. They can colonize and would make an effective screen along property boundary.  Use in mixed border or as a specimen.

Wildlife value: Habitat value for insects and for birds that come to nest in their branches. The seeds and flowers are eaten by turkey and ruffed grouse.

Comments: An important medicinal plant for many native American tribes. Twigs, leaves and bark are the basis of witch hazel extract.
Tolerates: Deer, Erosion, Clay Soil 

I love that not only does Hamamelis vernalis flower for months, it has a lovely fragrance. How clever of Mother Nature to give winter bloomers that something special to insure that moths, a little fly, gnat or bee will follow the scent and pollinate the flower.


 ...and now for something really special!


Welcome to Clay and Limestone's Wildflower Wednesday celebration. On the fourth Wednesday of each month I share information about wildflowers and other native plants. Please join in if you like. You can write a blog post or share your favorite wildflower on social media. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, and, it doesn't matter if we all share the same plants. It's all about celebrating wildflowers.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. I love the Ozark witch hazel in the front of our Asheville garden. We'll miss the flowers while we're away, but our neighbors will enjoy them. I've forgotten how to join in on Wildflower Wednesdays, but always love your posts!

  2. The Witch Hazels are beautiful and beneficial, aren't they? And your photos, as always, are amazing. Thanks for hosting, Gail. I'm joining in at www.plantpostings.com. :)

  3. Still with you - gardening for biodiversity - looking for promising candidates on my weekly hikes (altho that is mostly mountain and our garden is in the valley) Love vanilla scent!

  4. Nice to see your still here https://gardenendeavors.blogspot.com/

  5. Nice post thank you Tiffany


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson