BiodiverseCity St. Louis
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BiodiverseCity St. Louis is a growing network of organizations and individuals throughout the greater St. Louis region who share a stake in improving quality of life for all through actions that welcome nature into our urban, suburban and rural communities. Learn more about this effort, and join in.

Take Action Today…and Make It Count

Throughout St. Louis, every day, people are making big and small changes to their backyards, balconies, streetscapes, schoolyards, parking lots, and play areas. Some are doing this because they love nature and want to experience more of it in their daily lives. Others recognize that native plants in the right places help prevent flooding, clean and cool our air and improve human health and well-being. Still others embrace the positive impact that leafy streets, accessible parks, hiking/biking trails and other quality green spaces have on property values and the economic vibrancy of our region.

For all these reasons and more, the BiodiverseCitySTL Network invites each of the 2.9 million citizens of the greater St. Louis bi-state region to take action. In this spirit, we are excited to launch the Nature in Our Neighborhoods citizen action project. No matter who you are or where you live, all of us can do something to beautify, bio-diversify and better the communities in which we live, work, learn and play. To get started, check out our curated list of expert ideas and local resources from across our region, connect with others and share your stories.


Species Spotlight


Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a very common shrub in our region that is often overlooked. It calls attention to itself as one of the only—and usually last—woody plants to flower in January–February, giving its common name “winterbloom.” Witch Hazel can reach 30 feet in height, but rarely does so. It is usually an understory shrub, twisted in form. The genus name Hamamelis means “together with fruit” referring to the tendency of these plants to retain last year’s fruit while the new year’s flowers are blooming.

Ozark witch hazel, a Plant of Merit, produces bright red flowers in late winter, bringing color and subtle fragrance to the landscape when other deciduous bushes are dormant. Each slightly aromatic flower consists of four slender twisted yellow petals which are often in bloom as its leaves change color or have even already dropped for the fall.

Since few pollinators are working so late in the season, the flowers can self-pollinate and are not picky as to which pollinators make use of them. Pollinators are often gnats or noctuid moths, but quite a few other species have been noted. Each flower also lasts quite a long time, giving potential pollinators ample time to find them.

Last year’s seed pods are often still unopened next to the following year’s blossoms. Witch hazel has an interesting seed dispersal mechanism, popping audibly and shooting the dark seeds up to 30 feet away. This has led to such additional common names as snapping alder or snapping hazel. Once the seeds have been expelled, they commonly take two years to germinate.

Although many magical qualities are associated with this plant, its common name of Witch Hazel has physical roots. The “witch” part comes from the older English word wych meaning “bendable” or “bending.” The bush looked similar enough to the European wych elm or Scots elm (Ulmus glabra) that the name was applied to the New World plants. This was later corrupted to “witch,” possibly because so many magical properties were also attributed to it.

witchhazel in fall
Witch hazel in fall.
Witch Hazel is not closely related to the hazelnut (Corylus) genus of trees, although they have some similar characteristics. Both plants produce seed capsules in summer, but hazelnuts are much bigger and rely on mammals and birds to disperse their nuts. Witch hazels eject their ripe seeds from the shell with great force in early autumn. Glossy black seeds shoot out with an audible “pop” and land up to 30 feet away. The sound of that popping throughout the woods of eastern North America led colonists to think of these New World shrubs as bewitched hazels. Common speech shortened that to witch hazel and the name stuck.

Witch Hazel branches were preferred by settlers and dowsers as divining rods, used to search for underground water and minerals, a flexing quality that grew the plant’s magical association.

Native Americans used witch hazel extracts for astringent and antiseptic, a practice that continues today. Witch hazel astringent, sold in drug and grocery stores, is used as an after-shave, for insect bites and stings, and to soothe scrapes and sunburns. Witch hazel pads are great for removing make-up, leaving skin feeling fresh and clean but not too dry.

Six identified species all have oval leaves, alternately arranged on the stem. Scalloped leaf edges add to this plant’s many attractive qualities. Witch hazel is a superior winter-flowering shrub for the landscape: shrub borders, woodland gardens, screen or tall hedge. Prune in spring after flowering to control shape and size.

This hardy, woody bush is easily grown in average to medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Best flowering is in full sun. Prefers moist, acidic, organically rich soils. Consistent moisture is best (leaf scorch may occur during periods of summer drought). Some tolerance for clay soils as long as drainage is good. Promptly remove root suckers to prevent colonial spread. It is particularly important to remove root suckers rising from below a graft union.

Witch hazel has no serious insect or disease problems. Caterpillars and Japanese beetles may chew on the leaves. Watch for leaf gall aphids, weevils, scale, leafroller and leaf miner. Potential diseases include powdery mildew, occasional leaf spots and rots.

Witch hazels at Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden has four types of Witch Hazel on grounds, a mix of straight species and cultivars. Overall, the highest concentration of witch hazel can be seen on either side of the Daylily Garden leading to the Iris Garden. Most in this area will start blooming in January. There are also many throughout the Woodland Garden and in and around the Children's Garden. Others are scattered throughout the Garden (Japanese Garden, Kemper Center for Home Gardening, Chinese Garden, etc.).

On warm days before anything else is blooming, you may see honeybees on the flowers. Also, many of them have beautiful fall color. Some will turn a golden yellow, while a few around the Children's Garden were a maroon-burgundy color. A book called Witch Hazels by Chris Lane, published through the Royal Horticulture Society, is a rare but comprehensive guide on the plant, including color photos of different cultivars, care info, cultivation, etc.

Hamamelis spp.
Other names: Winterbloom, Snapping Hazel

  Witch hazel
(Hamamelis virginiana)
Missouri Native
Blooms October to December
Flower color: yellow
Approx. 36 specimens
Greatest concentration: Children's Garden; Daylily Garden has six, others scattered throughout the Garden.
This is the plant with medicinal uses.
  Ozark witch hazel
(Hamamelis vernalis)
Missouri Native
Blooms January to April
Flower color: yellow, orangish-red (depending on the cultivar)
Approx. 51 specimens
Greatest concentration: Daylily/Knolls, Woodland Garden, Kemper Native Shade Garden
  Chinese Witch Hazel
(Hamamelis mollis)

Blooms January to March
Flower color: yellow
Approx. 27 specimens
Greatest concentration: Woodland Garden, a prominent one blooms along the main path. A few near Daylily Garden.
  Hamamelis × intermedia: Hybrid between Japanese witch hazel (H.  japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis)
Blooms February to March
Flower color: yellow, red, orange (depending on cultivar)
Approx. 91 specimens
Greatest concentration is located on either side of the path through the Daylily Garden, and the outer fence of the Children's Garden.

Thanks for this feature’s content to Mark Halpin, Forestry Manager for Forest ReLEAF of Missouri, and Daria McKelvey, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Supervisor of Home Gardening Information and Outreach.


Great Reads


This one time, Great Read and spring birds call us to enjoy the Great View from Margy Terpstra's talk “Why Our Gardens Are Vital to Conservation of Native Birds.” Thanks to St. Louis Wild Ones Chapter for this gem from their Winter Speaker Series.

Margy is an avid birder, nature photographer and lifelong gardener with a degree in Horticulture. Since 1996, Margy and husband Dan Terpstra have worked together around Shady Oaks Sanctuary, their half-acre property in Kirkwood, to remove invasive plants, restore biodiversity with beautiful Missouri natives and add water features, all for the benefit of birds and wildlife.

Margy is a member of Wild Ones St. Louis Chapter, the St. Louis Audubon Society and MoNEP, the Missouri Nature and Environmental Photographers organization. Visit the Terpstra’s website Hummer Haven Unlimited to see more of Margy’s photography and read about the wildly wonderful hospitality of their property.

For a virtual tour of the Terpstra’s backyard, you can watch St. Louis Audubon Society’s YouTube video. To learn more about how to get involved with St. Louis Wild Ones, check out their website.