Flowers in winter
Hamamelis 'Orange Beauty'. Photograph: Richard Johnston
The delicate flowers of witch hazel add colour to bleak midwinter gardens, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
Late last week, as a thick crust of snow covered the frozen ground and the occasional snowflake fluttered down from a winter-grey sky, I paid a visit to Mount Venus, the specialist nursery established in 2000 by the award-winning garden designers Liat and Oliver Schurmann. Located in the historic walled garden of Tibradden House in the foothills of the Dublin mountains, this first-rate nursery has long been a favourite destination of gardeners, landscape architects and designers, attracted by its ever-changing range of unusual shrubs, grasses and perennials.
On this occasion, I was there to get a preview of Mount Venus’s collection of winter-flowering shrubs and trees, stars of the nursery’s upcoming event, taking place next Saturday, entitled Flowers in Winter. Its purpose is to encourage Irish gardeners to exploit the potential of the winter garden in all its pared-back beauty by growing some of the season’s most beautiful woody plants.
Among them are the very lovely witch hazels, or Hamamelis as this genus of deciduous, winter-flowering shrubs is more properly known. Stepping inside the nursery’s old granite walls, I was greeted by the glorious sight of up to a dozen different varieties of this plant in full flower, lighting up the snowy Irish landscape with their crumpled petals in various shades of copper, gold, burnt orange, ember-red and lemon-yellow.
Depending on the variety, the witch hazel’s elegantly ragged flowers can appear on starkly bare stems from as early as Christmas or as late as March. They last an average of six weeks and despite their apparent fragility, are defiant of even the iciest winter weather. Given a still, mild-ish day and winter sunshine, many of them (but not all) release a captivatingly sweet or spicy perfume, while some are also noted for their colourful autumn foliage.
Amongst the earliest flowering is Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ whose toffee-orange coloured flowers appear from January. First introduced in the 1950s, it’s named after the woman who raised it, the distinguished nurserywoman, plant breeder and onetime co-owner of the famous Kalmthout Arboretum in Belgium, the late Jelena de Belder. The equally lovely H. ‘Diane’ (ember-red flowers) is named after de Belder’s daughter. Mount Venus stocks both varieties, although Oliver Schurmann’s own favourite is H. ‘Aphrodite’, a handsome shrub that produces an abundance of lightly-scented, orange-bronze flowers in late winter. Among the other Hamamelis varieties stocked by the nursery, the most strongly scented include the luminously lemon-flowered H. ‘Pallida’ and H. ‘Jermyn’s Gold’, while I couldn’t help falling in love with H. ‘Barnstedt Gold’, a variety that produces an abundance of large, perfumed, dark-golden flowers along its bare branches. The burnt-orange flowers of H. ‘Rubin’ also caught my eye, as did the long-petalled, golden-orange, fragrant blossoms of H. ‘Vezna’, the centres of which are flushed dark-red.
All witch hazels do best in full sun or light shade and in an acid/neutral soil, but are tolerant of alkaline soils as long as they are deep, friable and fertile (the Schurmanns have successfully used them in many of the Dublin gardens they’ve designed).
What the plant hates above all else is for its roots to be waterlogged. In wet gardens or those prone to flooding, dig in plenty of grit and plant on gently raised mounds. While the flowers themselves are remarkably resistant to cold temperatures, very young plants can be badly damaged by late frosts and cold winds, so avoid planting in frost pockets and give recently planted specimens fleece protection when required, until they are well established.
Given the witch hazel’s shallow roots, it’s also important to water young plants during any prolonged dry spells. Further protect the vulnerable root system with a mulch of leaf mould or garden compost, which should also help to keep the soil weed-free.
If at all possible, try to position your witch hazel against a backdrop of evergreen foliage and in a spot where its delicate, translucent flowers can be easily seen. And don’t be intimidated by the plant’s reputation as a large, spreading shrub; in smaller gardens it can be kept relatively compact with an annual spring prune, which will also encourage it to be more floriferous (after flowering, cut the previous year’s growth back to two buds). The plant can also be successfully grown as a fan-trained specimen against a wall.
At a push it may even be kept in a large tub or container, as long as you’re prepared to be ultra-diligent as regards regularly watering, pruning and feeding. It seems a small price to pay for such luminous winter beauty.
Flowers in Winter – a special day at Mount Venus Nursery highlighting winter-flowering shrubs and trees is at Walled Garden, Tibradden, Mutton Lane, Dublin 16, February 9th, 11am-5pm. See mountvenus nursery.com
A few places are still available on Jimi Blake’s Plantspersons’ Course, which starts on February 17th (12 classes, one Sunday per month, €74 per class, see huntingbrook.com)