A bewitching shimmer

Witch hazels offer one of the best winter flower displays in the garden, especially when the low sun catches their spidery blooms. Kent Life visits Chris Lane's National Collection at his nursery in Newington to find out more

Words and pictures by Leigh ClappFor floral spectacle and fragrance, Hamamelis are hard to beat in the winter garden. Their profusion of spidery flowers in warm hues of golds, orange and crimson is sure to brighten the dullest of winter days; and when sunlight catches them, they are quite breathtaking.A visit to expert Chris Lane's nursery near Sittingbourne is sure to inspire. The magical sight of them mass planted may bewitch you with their blaze of fiery colours. Chris remembers coming under their spell while working as a lecturer at Hadlow College, near Tonbridge, during the cold winter of 1978-79. He was amazed how they withstood an arctic -18°C one night, appearing to be scrunched up and withered early in the morning, only to discover that when the temperature rose to -1°C, they had unfurled and recovered brilliantly, unblemished. From that day on he began collecting witch hazel cultivars, attracted by both their frost-hardy capacity and their enticing scented flowers.The collection has grown through contacts, such as the late John Bond of Savill Garden near Windsor, and the late Robert and Jelena de Belders from their famous Belgium arboretum, which boasts some of the world's finest witch hazel cultivars. By the early 1990s, Chris had moved his collection to an eight-acre windy site by his home in Newington. It has continued to grow as his reputation has spread to growers in the USA and Germany.Today Chris grows more than 250 cultivars and holds one of the three National Plant Collections. "These are assessed on a regular basis by the Woody Plants Trials Committee of the Royal Horticultural Society and, after judging, worthy plants are given the Award of Garden Merit," he explains. The wholesale nursery produces a range of young plants on a contract basis to other nurseries, supplying the garden centre industry, and Chris has also started his own breeding programme.Chris's favourite witch hazelsHamamelis x intermedia Pallida• highly floriferous• sulphur-yellow blooms• strongly scented• easy to grow

Hamamelis x intermedia Vesna• yellow-orange flowers• good autumn colour

Hamamelis x intermedia Aphrodite• orange-red flowers• burnt orange appearance• vigorous

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'• lemony blooms• good autumn colour

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aurora'• large yellow-red flowers• strong scentChris's growing advice• plant where they can be seen from windows• place near a path or front of a border to enjoy the scent• traditionally, they have been grown in woodland setting but will grow happily in open site and flowering will be more profuse• avoid frost pockets as susceptible to late-spring frosts• all soils, except shallow overlying chalk or limestone• well-drained, water logging during winter will lead to root death• good soil preparation important• don't plant too deeply, surface rooting• don't plant in wet soil• do not incorporate organic matter when planting, can add later to surface of soil• water during dry spells in summer• can be pruned to contain size after flowering once well establishedGet in touchWitch Hazel NurseriesCallaways LaneNewingtonSittingbourneOnly open on designated open days, plants available to purchase. Sun 25 Jan and 8 Feb, 10am to 4pm. Entrance £3 in support of Demelza House Hospice. Also by appointment for groups, tel: 01795 843098.

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