We typically associate flowers with warm weather and sunshine, but some special plants grace us with their blooms during chillier times. If you’re out in the woods this time of year, keep your eyes open for these small, yellow, spider-like blooms on bare branches. You’re not alone if you’re wondering, “What is this tree doing, flowering this time of year?” or, “How in the world will those flowers be pollinated?” These are the blooms of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a shrub found throughout the eastern U.S., and yes – it’s completely normal for them to bloom in the late fall and winter, long after most of our trees have lost their leaves! For a long time nobody knew how they were pollinated, but eventually scientists discovered that witch hazel is pollinated by a group of winter moths called owlet moths. Amazingly, owlet moths use shivering to increase their body temperature, which allows them to be active on cold nights when they emerge to feed on witch hazel nectar and tree sap!
Some common garden plants that are known for blooming in winter or very early spring, often while snow is still on the ground, are hellebores (sometimes called Lenten rose or Christmas rose), and bulbs like crocuses, early daffodils, and snowdrops. While none of these are native to the U.S., they can provide interest in winter gardens as well as important food for hoverflies, bees, and butterflies that emerge on warm days in late winter and early spring.
Photo credit: "Witch-Hazel" by pellaea is licensed with CC BY 2.0.
Author: Amber Wiewel
Snetsinger Butterfly Garden Knowledge Series