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Witch-Hazel’s Trick

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Witch-hazel. The oval, wavy-edged leaves are efficient at capturing filtered sunlight under a mature forest canopy. Photo by Georgia Peterson, MSU Extension.

Did Witch-Hazel’s trick get you? Her annual Halloween trick is mostly completed. Now she is busy preparing for next year. She might still shoot at you in November so watch out.

Put on a warm layer for a wonderful hike to enjoy the delayed fall season. Colors have been slow, but their progression is advancing. It has been a most enjoyable September and October with unseasonably warm conditions. Staying inside has been difficult. Stay vigilant watching for Witch-Hazel. She might still get you.

Witch-Hazel’s survival trick is different from aspens. A clone of quaking aspen in the sanctuary dropped its leaves earlier than others that remained green. The early leaf drop of the one genetically unique clone spreads shoots from an original tree’s underground roots. Technically, the many shoots are part of one plant expanding its size and all are genetically identical with DNA programmed to drop leaves early. It is a survival trick.

Perhaps you have heard of the aspen clone in the western Upper Peninsula that is one of the oldest living things. It is older than the ancient giant redwood trees that have lived more than 3000 years. Individual stems of the clone usually live less than one hundred years, but the individual plant shoots grow from underground roots produced from the original tree stem. New stems are genetically identical to the parent that grew from a seed. They are a living portion of the original plant and are considered the same individual. 

Sexual reproduction of the early leaf dropping clone is genetically unique from surrounding aspen clones. Its shoots sprouted by cloning asexually from the parent’s roots. I am expecting most other aspens to turn yellow and drop leaves about the time this article goes to press. Each clone has genetically special survival tricks.

All individuals in a species have genetic survival tricks for their nature niche. Different individuals of a species are not identical like members of a clone. Those produced by sexual reproduction differ from other members of species. Even some animals are genetically identical. Aphids reproduce asexually all summer from one original parent. All the offspring are females with identical genetics. Late in the season, aphids produce winged males and females that mate with individuals from other clones to create genetic diversity for next year’s populations. 

Witch-Hazel is a shrub that produces many stems that grow in a clonal clump. They do not spread like aspens. Enjoy a fall adventure outside to notice Witch-Hazel’s yellow leaves hold onto branches into November. The leaves will soon fall but this plant is the last plant in the season to flower. You can find 4 small yellow string-like flower petals that attract insects. The plants have both male and female flower parts. Cold is upon us, but insects remain active on warmer days facilitating cross pollination. It is too late in the year to produce seeds.

During the next growing season, the fertilized eggs will grow hard shelled fruits. Their green will not be noticed all summer as they mature hidden among leaves for their Halloween trick. During fall, the plant will announce its presence by shooting seeds at you. When you walk by shrubs that are eight to ten feet tall and as wide, expect to hear popcorn like popping. It will not be as frequent as popcorn popping in a kettle, but it is frequent. 

The drying fruit capsules suddenly spring open shooting black seeds with force. The seeds may sail 15 to 30 feet. They might land far enough from the parent to start a genetically new plant if they are not eaten by a variety of organisms seeking nourishment. The offspring are different from their parents like our children are different from us. The new genetic variety is a unique survival trick, but the individuals closely resemble the parents. The genetic variety helps the species adapt to slowly changing environmental conditions. 

If you get in the way of Witch-Hazel shooting her seeds, you might get hit in the head and wonder if someone is shooting at you with a BB gun. Stand still and listen for more seeds being fired into areas surrounding the parent. Shooting the seeds away from the parent offers increased survival opportunities. Witch Hazel has colonized lightly shaded areas in the sanctuary. Come walk the field that has transformed to a shrubland. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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