Yesterday, walking along Deep Creek outside Bryson City in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, after multiple days and nights of freezingweather, we saw wildflowers in full bloom. We almost missed them–and probably would have if we hadn’t been looking for them–but there they were, tiny yellow blossoms reaching up to the afternoon sun. Who’d have imagined it?
Here in the western North Carolina mountains, when we think of flowers in December our thoughts typically run to indoor blooms–poinsettia, paper whites, or even hothouse roses to celebrate the season. Outdoors at this time of year we typically look for fruiting plants, such as fir trees with their cones, or this year’s bounty of wild holly berries set against their spiny, dark evergreen leaves–both classic Christmas images. We don’t expect flowers blooming outdoors. But we forget about witch hazel.
Witch hazel is a preparation most of us look for in drug stores, traditionally used in skin care and wound treatments. Most of us don’t know that what we’re buying is an extract made from the bark of a shrub. In these mountains, this native plant begins blooming in the fall and keeps right on through early winter, with the flowers often sharing barren-looking twigs with the tiny brown fruit from the previous year. The blooms are small, sometimes as small as a half-inch, and yellow to pale yellow in color. This can make them hard to spot, especially if they bloom overhead on the taller specimens. Another name for witch hazel is snapping hazel, referring to the ability of the seed pods to propel the mature seeds up to 30 feet away from the fruiting plant.
Even on the warmest of winter days, the forest can look stark and bare. But if we care to look, these are days when it’s easier to see more subtle woodland details obscured by the foliage of spring, summer, and fall. You can even find, in sheltered spots like the Deep Creek area, wildflowers blooming just after the shortest day of the year.