Witch-hazel that is. I was walking through the woods, watching the leaves raining down in a cascade of yellow and red, when I noticed what my mom would call a “punky” flower, not unlike a long-haired punk rocker. She normally would be referring to the garden and roadside herbaceous flower Beebalm but I think she would be open to including the Witch-hazel flower as a “punky.” Most shrubs and trees flower in the spring and into the summer, but not the Witch-hazel. This deciduous shrub or small tree, Hamamelis virginiana, waits until autumn to put on its own little show in the understory of the woods. The irregular naked brown buds are scalpel-shapes and you can certainly notice them along the thin twigs that appear to be zig-zagging to their branches. The oval green leaves fade in the fall and as they fall one cannot help but notice the green flowers that appear like many-pointed starbursts dancing in the air. This Witch is a helpful healer as many may know. The Native peoples of New England created a decoction of Witch-hazel by boiling the twigs in water. This extract was then applied directly to the skin as an astringent; treating cuts, wounds and inflammation. It became quite popular with the white settlers and has maintained a stable footing in the medicine cabinets of today.
A tale of two persistent fall fruits…
Apple, Malus domestica, of the Rose family, are descendants of Malus sieversii which are found in the mountains of central Asia in southern Kazakhstan. Our beloved Apple was brought over to the United States in the 1600s. We loved the Apple so much that we planted it everywhere we could – and this is why you will find old trees even in the woods when you don’t notice any other signs of a pasture all grown up. Most cultivated Apple tree leaves, unlike their ancestor, do not turn red in the fall, but persist in maintaining their green color. The leaves are ovate and the branching system is alternate. The gray bark is a rough and flaky. Depending on the variety, the fruit is quite versatile: consumable raw or cooked or processed in to sweet cider, hard cider, or vinegar. Cut an apple crosswise, and like the magic of the season, you will find a five pointed star.
Unlike the Apple, Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellate, of the Oleaster family, also a migrant of central Asia, is generally not well loved in the United States and is considered an invasive. Brought over in the 1830s as an ornamental, Autumn Olive is very prolific and creates its own orchards, despite humans thinking the tall shrub or short tree is taking up more than its fair share of space. This specie is not at all related to true olives. The fruit, called a drupe, is quite tasty – AFTER the frost. Before the frost it tastes a bit chalky. It keeps well in the freezer and has a sweet-tart flavor. I throw a handful into pancakes or use the fruit to make breakfast shakes. The silver-speckled, small red abundant drupes are high in Lycopene and antioxidants – 7 to 17 times higher than that of tomatoes – so eat it up! The long tapering wavy leaves are green with silver speckles. The branching system is alternate and the bark is speckled gray-brown and can appear to have a sheen in the sunlight. Perhaps in another hundred years or so Autumn Olive will be considered naturalized like the Apple.
Though it may be cold out there in the outdoors and you are wondering how to keep warm, consider taking a brisk walk with a friend and visiting these woody neighbors of forest and field. Then come inside after, all rosy-cheeked, to share a hot beverage, such as mulled apple cider. See you out there!
Autumnal blessings to you!