Kickstarting the new year with Hamamelis!
Bringing hope during the darkest time of year
I was lucky: I had the great fortune of growing up with Hamamelis also known as Witchhazels: Big characterful shrubs that would fill the winter air with their incredible perfume. My father would cut a few branches and put them in a vase in early December so that in the warmth of the house, they would bring a sense of spring and hope in the darkest time of the year. The room would be filled with their magical scent. It has influenced me for life: every winter I need to see just one in flower then I know all will be well and spring is on its way. In the years I lived in the Cotswolds, this was a difficult task as they dislike heavy and alkaline soils. I would content myself with visiting the one growing in the delightful Botanic Garden in Oxford.
Arboretum Kalmthout: The birthplace of many
Last week I pilgered to the garden where for me it all started: The Arboretum of Kalmthout, half an hour’s drive or train ride north of Antwerp. It is where I commenced my gardening career, but more importantly, it is where some of the earliest Hamamelis cultivars were selected and named. During the 19th century this was a tree nursery. Charles Van Geert and Antoine Kort used to grow Witchhazels and Kort selected the first named cultivars in the 1930’s. The first red one to come onto the market was ‘Ruby Glow’ which was his last introduction before his death. In the 1950’s this work was continued as Georges, Robert and Jelena de Belder acquired the site and turned it into an arboretum. The 35 cultivars that were raised here include ‘Jelena’, ‘Gingerbread’, ‘Harry’, ‘Spanish Spider’, ‘Diane’, ‘Livia’ and ‘Strawberries and Cream’.
Because of this great tradition, Kalmthout is the place where the International Register of Named Hamamelis Cultivars is held. Here all new cultivars are registered, regardless where they come from, providing a worldwide overview.
Precisely when they will start flowering is impossible to predict, as it is all influenced by the mildness of the winter weather. Hamamelis virginiana starts flowering in autumn, but the acid yellow flowers appear when the shrub is still in leaf, and is changing to its yellow autumn colour. As a result, the whole effect is lost and the flowering is only enjoyed by those who go and look for them. The majority offered for sale Hamamelis x intermedia hybirds which will start to flower around Christmas time or at the start of the new year.
This year is perfect: The earlier varieties such as the glowing orange variety ’Jelena’, the particularly long-petalled ‘Aurora’ and dark red ‘Livia’ were already in full flower before the year was out, whilst the paler yellow ‘Pallida’ was starting to unfurl its slender petals, and the warm yellow ‘Arnold Promise’ just had one rebellious little yellow branch out.
This is what I love about them: unlike any other winter flowering shrub, their petals are capable of withstanding hard frosts. After a cold spell they just right themselves and carry on flowering to the end. All other winter delights will turn brown when the temperature drops below freezing. As a shrub they are reliably hardy, coping well with the Berlin prolonged spells of -20°C or less.
Give them ample space
Their wonderful growth habit makes them very special characterful shrubs. All too often they become muddled up with various other neighbouring shrubs. Last week we moved one large self-seeded one in our Brussels garden. It is about 35 years old, and I had not realized how big it really had become as it was growing through adjacent mahonias. It has been given a space of its own now where it can stand in isolated beauty measuring about 6m diameter. If you can, give them an evergreen background: yew, rhododendron or mahonia will show off the discreet flowers much better.
For smaller gardens
Where space is an issue, opt for the more upright growing ‘Orange Peel’. Alternatively, prune them each spring by removing the previous year’s growth to two buds. This will lead to a dense, compact shrub, but will lose all its wonderful character so only do this if it is really necessary. Apparently, one can also wall-train them as an espalier. I have never seen one, but I imagine that an east- or west facing wall or trellis would be perfect. Here too after flowering they would need to be pruned back and tied in.
Go out and treat your senses (especially your nose but in case it is still too cold for them to release their perfume, give them some breaths of warm air).