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Funky Phenology

By Jake Francis, Director of Environmental Education —   Yesterday I got to take a hike along the falls vista trail to check its condition after the high winds and heavy rains from the recent super storm, Sandy.  Luckily we did not lose any large trees, especially considering the losses we had during July’s gale.  Despite the rainy weather and muddy trails, there are still interesting things to see along the trails of Oglebay park.  A variety of fall mushrooms have been popping as a result of the moist weather and changes in forest microclimate (particularly in the gaps formed by fallen trees).  As I came to the end of the Falls Vista Trail , and walked on the overlook to photograph the falls, I noticed one of my favorite autumn flowers the American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginina).

This small shrubby tree produces small spindly flowers in the fall.    They are structurally interesting with long needle shaped petals, almost non-existent sepals, and anthers that open with two Mickey Mouse-esque flaps to release the pollen.

The most interesting part of this plant’s reproductive biology though is its phenology.  Phenology is the study of timing and changes to periodic life cycle events in organisms.   American Witch-hazel differs from all other witch-hazels in that it flowers in late fall.  Competition for pollinators in the spring is likely what has driven the evolution of this novel phenology; H. virginiana is able to attract pollinators who have little other options with its meager nectar production.  After the flower has been pollenated in late autumn the pollen sits on the stigma (female flower part) until early spring when fertilization occurs.  In late spring or early summer the plant produces pods of seeds that shoot seeds several meters from the parent.  Despite the ballistic dispersal, American Witch-hazel are commonly found in dense patches in our eastern forests.

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