Be-Witching Hazel Nursery
‘You won’t get SAD syndrome if you grow Hamamelis’ (a.k.a. witch hazel) says Chris Lane of www.witchhazelnursery.com. I defy anyone to feel sad after meeting nurseryman Chris. He is a remarkable man literally brimming with horticultural knowledge and enthusiasm. It is both a privilege and a joy to spend time with such a consummate plantsman. Tucked away off the dreary A2 adjacent to the handsome late 16th-century Newington Manor is Chris’s wholesale nursery sporting not just one but four National Plant Collections: Hamamelis, Wisteria, Parrotia and Amelanchier. In 2014 he won the Brickell Award for Excellence in Cultivated Plant Conservation. Eight acres of what was his father’s and his uncle’s seventy acre fruit farm is devoted to hamamelis.
It was while he was a student at Hadlow College in the 1970s that he first became captivated by witch hazel. ‘We had two nights of -18 degrees and all the cherry blossom crinkled up but by midday the flowers of the hamamelis had popped out undamaged. From that moment I was hooked’. As John Hoyland writes in this month’s issue of ‘Gardens Illustrated (www.gardensillustrated.com) ‘I have seen flowers of H.mollis that have been encased in ice in the morning, which later in the day, after the thaw, are still sparkling and fresh, rather than the brown mush that so many other flowers would have become’. Chris says ‘They’ve got their own anti-freeze’. The plants have a flowering period of between four to six weeks depending on how cold it is. An added bonus in many cultivars is the autumn colour of the foliage ranging from yellow to orange and red.
Hamamelis are a genus of four species of woody shrubs, two from North America and two from Asia, all flowering in the winter/early spring except for Hamamelis virginiana L. which flowers in the autumn which was introduced into England in the 18th-century by Peter Collinson. A Quaker, Mr. Collinson was one of those fascinating 18th-century intellectual figures. By trade a cloth merchant, he was an avid gardener and through his excellent international trading links imported cuttings, bulbs and seeds from all over the world. He is also known for his correspondence with Benjamin Franklin about electricity. He also corresponded with several notable scientists including Carolus Linnaeus and fellow Quaker and plant collector,John Fothergill.
Some – well, nearly all, of the gardening team (Lucy Adams, David Breakell and I) from Doddington Place Gardens spent two blissful hours last week with Chris walking up and down his neat rows of of approximately one hundred and fifty different hamamelis. And by Jove they come in a huge variety of different shades of yellow, red and orange, intensity of fragrance and form. I can’t understand why they are not more widely grown as every garden should have one to liven up these dank winter days. A peek at his website is a visual feast of close up photographs of some of the many different flowers: Adieu, Fire Blaze, Copper Cascade, Orange Peel (you can see why it is called that), Christmas Cheer, New Year Gold and many many more. His website proffers excellent advice on the cultivation of these wonderful plants. Here is just one small piece of advice: ‘Winter wet can be a problem if the soil is not free draining, hamamelis is a little bit of a fussy plant’, adding ‘but so rewarding at this time of year’.
At first we were not so enamoured by the delicate shades of red flowers but as soon as the sun came out and the flowers began to glow in the sunlight our minds instantly changed. Apart from the heady scent and colour I love the extraordinary form of the blooms which are somewhere between candid citrus peel and those little woollen pompoms one made at primary school. The little petals curl every which way in a most endearingly eccentric manner.
Chris learnt how to graft at www.oakovernurseries just outside Ashford before returning to Hadlow as a tutor. He now runs his nursery on his own but his conversation is peppered with frequent references to Belgian, American and even Japanese nurserymen which demonstrates his stature in the plant world. His collection of hamamelis was awarded National Collection status in 1997. He has bred two cultivars: Hamamelis x intermdia ‘Foxy Lady’ which has scarlet flowers, and the orange-flowered H. x i. ‘Burning Desire’ both named after two of his favourite Jimi Hendrix tracks. Many of his hamamelis are as yet un-named. ‘I love the thrill of creating something new’.
NB. The nursery is only open on designated ‘Open Day’s.