The hamamelis have burst their tight, velvety buds. Huddled darkly along bare branches, it is as if they have waited until we are hungry, our appetites pining for a break with winter. Welcome for the absence of life elsewhere, I fall under their spell again yearly, without fail and willingly.
I first encountered them in maturity at Wisley, where in winter they were a mainstay of the winter plant idents, but it was not until my early twenties that I saw the true potential of the witch hazels. My friend Isabelle had taken me to Kalmthout Arboretum in Belgium to meet the owner, Jelena de Belder, the grower of many witch hazels and breeder of several of the best. The first, ‘Ruby Glow’ amongst them, were planted at the arboretum in the 1930s and the De Belders started their own breeding programme in the ’50’s. By the time we saw her collection in the early eighties, they were reaching out in maturity to touch one another, their fiery limbs, on a deep February winter’s day, an unforgettable understorey. The branches were bare and filled with the light of a million tiny filaments. The darkest as deep and red as rubies, and from there running through fire colours from the glow of smouldering embers to incandescent gold, flame yellow and palest sulphur.
Writing now with a sprig of ‘Barmstedt Gold’ on the table in front of me, so that I can look in close detail, I remember further back to Geraldine’s Hamamelis mollis. Our neighbour, and my gardening mentor when I was a child, always picked a sprig to enliven her winter table. We would marvel at the strength of the perfume and its combination of delicacy and brazenness pitted against the odds of winter. So my witch hazel affair goes far back, but now is the first real opportunity I’ve had to put a shrub in open ground and be happy in the expectation of its future.
Before here, in the Peckham garden, I grew hamamelis in pots, because there simply wasn’t space in the beds. They were surprisingly tolerant and it afforded me the opportunity of bringing them up close to the house in the winter to watch their buds unravel at close proximity. ‘Jelena’, a soft orange Hamamelis x intermedia hybrid named after Mme. de Belder, was always the first to flower, before Christmas in London and running through the length of January. It outgrew me, its limbs reaching wide and elegantly in a stretch that became harder and harder to accommodate when I moved it back into the semi-shade at the end of the garden. In the end I gave it away to Nigel Slater when creating a secret garden for him. A good home where I knew he would enjoy it, and every year I am delighted to see him post pictures of the first flowers on Instagram.
H. x intermedia ‘Gingerbread’ (main image) and ‘Barmstedt Gold’, together with a plant of Hamamelis mollis, a gift from Geraldine, came with me from Peckham to here in pots. The intermedia hybrids produce the greater bulk of the coloured varieties but, though they are scented, not all have the pervasive scent of the straight H. mollis. It is often something you have to find and put your nose to, which is why it is worth placing them in a sheltered corner which will hold the perfume, or upwind of where you know you are going to pass. Growing most happily in open woodland, they are adaptable to being out in the open as long as their roots are kept cool and moist in the summer months, and will flower more heavily in the light. Scorched edges to the foliage will show you that they have been under stress and if, like me, you have no choice but to grow them in an open position, this can be alleviated with a summer mulch and long, deep watering when it gets dry.
The books will tell you that they prefer acid soil, but I have found them to be tolerant of alkaline conditions, as long as they have plenty of organic matter in the ground, do not dry out in summer nor lie wet in winter. However, what few books tell you is that they can be short-lived if they find themselves under stress. A tree of thirty years is doing well if you force them too far beyond their comfort zone. They are also slow to attain size, or feel slow because you have an image of wide-spreading limbs in your mind, not the stark twiggery of a young plant. In five to seven years you can begin to see the plant as you want it to be, but if you spend a little more than you’re comfortable with, seeking out a 10 or 15 litre plant that has some substance, the immediate payback is worth it. This year’s purchases – I find it very difficult to resist extending my experience of witch hazels – saw the instant benefits of a waist high ‘Aphrodite’ for nearly £40 and a twig of ‘Orange Peel’ for £15.
Choosing the very best of a bewilderingly beautiful bunch is not easy, but my dabbling over the years has been worth it, for the named varieties have very differing habits. Being red-green colour blind, and losing some but not all reds, I must try hard to find ‘Diane’ when planted out in a garden. Up close I can see it is a wonderful colour and often use it for clients, but it is not one that I gravitate to for myself. It has a well-behaved, rounded habit and reliably scarlet autumn foliage, which singles it out as a variety to return to for two seasons of interest.
Several of the intermedia hybrids are problematic in my opinion for not losing leaves in winter, hanging on too long, like hornbeam or beech, to clutter what should be a naked stage of branches for the flowers. I have found that they do this in some gardens and not others and often they grow out of it as they mature, but I prefer the varieties that drop properly and most enjoy those that colour well in the autumn.
My plants here will be happy in our retentive loam despite the exposure, but I do mulch heavily with compost to emulate their natural wooded habitat. They have been planted here not only for the winter draw they provide, but also for the benefit of shade they bring to plants around them come summer. Rooting lightly and without heavy competition, they will provide home to spring flowering pulmonaria and erythronium which will come as they fade. The foliage of ‘Gingerbread’ has a copper flush as it comes into leaf, which is good with the Bath Asparagus planted beneath it, but later in the summer the branches provide a frame for Tropaeolum speciosum. The Flame Flower makes the branches flare again, when I have all but forgotten the winter spell that I am bewitched by today.