What to See This Autumn in the Wissahickon
By Wendy Willard, FOW Crew Leader and Trail Ambassador, Horticulturist and Landscape Designer
Fall-Blooming Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Our native witchhazel blooms in late autumn on 20′ to 30′ trees with broad, wavy leaves. The small, yellow flowers with four twisted, thread-like petals can be sweetly fragrant. Their elliptical capsules hold one
to two black, shiny seeds and when drying, the contracting capsule can eject the seeds 30 feet. A fine example can be found in the moist soil along Forbidden Drive near Bell’s Mill Road. Legend holds that a forked branch can be used to locate underground water.
Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
This many-branched 3′ to 8′ shrub, with lots of shoots emerging from the base, is distinguished by its clusters of round, blue fruit. Native Americans used the straight young stem of arrowwood as arrow shafts. The opposite, toothed leaves are dull green in the summer, turning shiny, bright red in the fall, a great alternative to the invasive burning bush. Visit the large stand of burning bush along Forbidden Drive near Ten Box and you will understand why it should never be planted near the park.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Common throughout the Wissahickon, the spicebush is especially easy to find in the fall, with its smooth, un-toothed yellow leaves and hard, red fruit. Both leaves and fruit have a strong, spicy, citrus fragrance when crushed. Spicebush is known as the “forsythia of the wild” because of its early spring clusters of yellow flowers that bloom before the leaves.
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)
The staghorn sumac found in the meadows, is a tall shrub or small tree with pinnately compound leaves that turn bright red, purple, and orange in the fall. A showy identification clue is the crowded, upright clusters of dark red fruit covered with dark red hairs. In the winter, the clusters stay attached, and the bare, hairy twigs resemble velvety deer antlers.