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.