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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Retrospectively February

February - I shall remember you as a month of bitter cold and snow.  Having said that the snow at the nursery last week came as a total surprise as I had been working in Hampshire, which was a fantastically enjoyable experience, but under glorious sunshine.   
I did spend a day as an invited speaker at Vincent Square and even there through the windows of the horticultural halls  I could see a mixture of driving rain and sleet descending on London.
Its hard to think about plants during such dreary weather especially if you cannot get outside to see them.  This is such a pity as February had some wonderful plants to offer us.
At the Rococo Garden, in between the showers, I have been cataloguing the different Galanthus in the garden on behalf of the Trust.  Amongst the varieties in the garden I found pleasingly large collections of :
Galanthus atkinsii - Named after John Atkins who lived on the Painswick estate. 
Galanthus atkinsii ‘James Backhouse’ - The charming irregular form which is my current favorite.
Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’ - Lovely large blunt outer petals slightly lifted.
Galanthus ‘Lynn’ - Most people agree this is superior to G. atkinsii, being larger and hanging beautifully.
Galanthus ‘John Sales’ - slim and understated.
Although some clumps are small, the garden has one of the United Kingdoms largest natural plantings of both G. nivalis and more dramatic on sight, G. atkinsii.
Of course February is also one of the best month’s for Witch-hazel, and outside of species collections in Botanic Gardens one of the most stunning collections can be found at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens just outside of Romsey.
(Picture: Hamamelis sp)
I first fell for the subtle charms of the witch hazel whilst studying horticultural taxonomy at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and I have found it an endlessly interesting genus ever since.
The horticultural name means, ‘together with fruit’ as the fruit, flowers and next years leaf buds all appear on the branch simultaneously, quite unusual in the plant world.  For a long time the Persian Ironwood was treated as a Hamemelis, but it is now known in its own right as Parrotia persica.
One of my favorite yellow flowering species is Hamamelis virginiana which is native to North America predominantly from Nova Scotia to Minnesota.  Like all Hamamelis it makes a stunning deciduous large shrub.  The branches whilst not horizontal do produce a distinct inverted vase shape with time.  The flowers are pale yellow to intense butter yellow with a wonderful fragrance.  The bark and leaves were used by native Americans in the treatment of external inflammations. I am also very found of Hamamelis virginiana var. mexicana, it just looks special. 
(Picture: Hamamelis virginiana)
Hamamelis virginiana  is most likely the origin of Pond’s Cream.  A healing cream invented by a scientist called Theron T. Pond in around 1846.  Pond extracted a tea from Witch Hazel with which he could heal small cuts and ailments.  
In 1925 Queen Marie of Romania visited the United States and enjoyed the product so much she wrote to the Ponds company requesting more supplies, the letter was used as a precursor to the modern day ‘Celebrity’ endorsement in an advertising campaign.  Pond’s today is owned by Unilever.
(Picture: Hamemalis vernalis)
Another American species I am fond of is Hamemalis vernalis, often occurring with H. virginiana it does not cross pollinate and hybridise and can be easily identified as it flowers in Late winter.  Also the leaves are dark green with a glaucose underside and most tellingly the flowers are bright red to orange.  This species has a number of popular cultivars selected from it including H. ‘Red Imp’ which has strong red petals with orange tips.
Many of us will know Hamamelis mollis, this genus is native to China, particularly in the East.  H. mollis with its golden autumn colourings was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1879 by Charles Maries and the form H. mollis ‘Coombe Wood’  which has a more spreading habit and larger than average flowers is the form he originally brought back.  Later H. mollis  was also introduced by Ernest Wilson and the form H. mollis ‘Jermyns Gold’ is believed to be one of the forms he brought back in 1918. 
Crossed with Hamamelis japonica to form Hamamelis x intermedia, it has gone on to produce some of the most well loved garden Witch Hazels.
(Photo: Hamamelis japonica)
After spending so much time talking about Witch Hazel it may come as a surprise that I don’t have a single plant in my garden.  I claim as an excuse the fact that we are scaling down our garden and collection of plants in an attempt to move but rest assured when space allows they will make a welcome appearance.


Sue Jenkins said...


I love Witch Hazel and am very inspired by your post to take a trip to see the ones at the Harold Hillier Garden. I also love the drop's and after checking your nursery pages will be coming up next year in the the hope of making a purchase of them, although I am tempted to visit on the strength of other the plants listed.
See you soon, Sue.

Christine B. said...

The entire family seems to eschew my area of the country. Too bad as they are so lovely. I did try a Parrotia p. 'Vanessa' which survived the winter only to ail and die the next summer. The leaves were wonderfully lustrous. That's what I get ordering a tree from 1500 miles away in zone 8 and expecting it to thrive in zone 3 or 4, I suppose....

Christine in Alaska

GwendolynGarden said...

I never think about the witch hazels until this time of year- and here, where we are still covered with two feet of snow, they are a godsend! Thank you for the reminder!

Paul Hervey-Brookes said...

Thank you all for your comments. With the warmer weather over these past few days its amazing how quickly the season begins to turn. The buds on the Witch Hazel's are fast and ready to burst open into leaf. I am looking forward to a long summer - fingers crossed!

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