Flowers that emerge from the snow usually arrive in the Spring. The aptly named snowdrop is often the first followed by crocuses. The Fall is different as this rarely happens. Fall crocuses, such as saffron, have come and gone by the time the first snow has arrived. So too have the flowers of late blooming roses like the pink ones we have growing next to the asparagus patch. But there is one flower that will often be in bloom in an early snow: witch hazel.
This yellow delicate stranded flower having a spicy fragrance is one of the few bright spots of Fall. Perhaps it was this unusual characteristic that led Native Americans to use the plant for medicinal purposes including treating skin ulcers and sores, colds as well as sore muscles. Branches were used for dowsing to find water. And it is still used today in many therapeutic salves and liquids.
There are over 20 cultivars of witch hazel but the only one that blooms in the Fall is the American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana.) They are pollinated now by honeybees and moths and the seeds that are formed will be ejected a year later explosively with a large snap.
With snow on the ground, the flowers stand out in an unnatural singular way against the stark background of grey bark and green leaves of rhododendrons and conifers. It is a stark reminder that color never leaves the garden but changes by season. It adds to the color of the winter garden: the reds of the winterberry and hollies as well as the blue/purples of the Winterthur viburnum and beautyberry. They are the few bright colors left of the season before the winter solstice arrives.
The snow also highlights other plants. The oak leaves that blew off in the storm that brought us nearly a foot of snow sit isolated on a sheet of white. The red stalks of the dogwoods stand by themselves looking a bit more vibrant. The beech and the oaks hold on to a few leaves. But the witch hazel stands alone with fresh yellow flowers in a final burst of life.