Wonderful witch hazels

Ever ready to brave the colder temperatures, these woodland trees really come into their own at the start of the year. Anne Swithinbank has some tips to get the best out of them…


As a student at Kew, my favourite winter route through the gardens passed by King William’s Temple, where a grove of witch hazels flourished in the shade. Their sweet perfume floated on the air and spidery blooms lit bare branches. Now, I can’t imagine a January or February without these small trees’ magic and their autumn tints are pretty good too. There are lots of showy cultivars with crinkly-petalled flowers in rich orange and red but my favourites carry the sweetest scent and include yellow-flowered hybrids of Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) such as ‘Jermyns Gold’ or sulphur-yellow H. x intermedia ‘Pallida’. 

Finding the right spot for these woodland plants is worthwhile, especially as they are not cheap to buy. In the nursery, plants are raised by grafting the chosen variety on to rootstocks of American Hamamelis virginiana and the extra time and expertise adds a premium so that plants start at around £25. Given a deep, humus-rich yet well-drained soil in sun or light shade sheltered from cold winds and frost pockets, plants grow to a height and spread of 4m (13ft). Water young plants during droughts while establishing and never let them suffer waterlogging in winter. On poor, sandy soils a north-west-facing spot helps roots to stay moist in summer, while on heavier clay soils a slightly raised bed will protect roots from winter wet. Mulch over moist roots in May or June. 

Perhaps we take for granted the range of cultivated plants available to us. The British Isles have a measly native flora compared with many parts of the world, limited by glacial periods and separation from the rest of Europe, though we do have a long history of welcoming and embracing exotic plants.

Until the 1500s, our gardens were stocked mainly with edible and useful European natives but long sea voyages of discovery and trade brought fascinating new plants from far-flung lands. London became a major port handling goods from the East Indies, Africa, the West Indies and America. At first, plants and seeds trickled in randomly alongside other goods, but scientific curiosity and a competitive passion for filling gardens with new plants soon developed. From the 1700s began the age of the great plant hunters, sent out by wealthy collectors and nurseries such as those of the world-famous Veitch family that were springing up to meet demand. 



For the Chinese witch hazel we must thank the plant hunter Charles Maries, a familiar name to gardeners who enjoy thehandsomelytiered Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ in their borders. He brought 500 new plants to Britain, among them Magnolia stellata, Acer davidii and Actinidia kolomikta. Sent to China and Japan by the Veitch Nursery in Chelsea, Maries found Hamamelis mollis in south-east China in 1878. Seed was sent back but only one plant made it to maturity. It languished for 20 years in the Coombe Wood Nursery in Kingston upon Thames before George Nicholson, then the curator of Kew Gardens, spotted it in 1898. The plant was soon propagated by grafting and on sale by 1902. 

DID YOU KNOW? Witch hazel ointment, which is often used to treat bruises, derives from the North American Virginian witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), whose small yellow flowers open in autumn as leaves turn yellow. 




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