Hamamelis, the winter Witches of Sir Harold Hillier Gardens

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’
Hamamelis or witch hazels as they are more commonly know, are truly the stars of the winter! Their beautiful spider like flowers enrich our lives in the garden, not only with their beauty but also their scent. The scent smells so sweet on the cold January and February air that it helps to lift the spirits from the winter blues. But don’t let that fool you, take a closer smell of each flower, some sadly aren’t that scented, others you get the scent of vanilla, others coconut, sweet spices and other sweet intoxicating scents I just can’t place. Each one just smells so different. They also can look stunning in the autumn months with some great autumn colour of rich reds, oranges and yellow coming though.

But why are they called witch hazels? Could it be they bewitch us with their spring beauty just like the beautiful women of old, who men fell in love with, but sadly spurred their advances, so were branded a witch for putting a spell on them and suffered the ducking stool or being burned at the stake for no fault of their own? But no, sadly the name comes from an old English word wiche/wice meaning pliable/bendable. It’s thought the new settlers in America just used a old familiar name to a new plant they found. The name Hamamelis comes from Greek words Hama meaning same time and melon, from the shape of the seeds. The seeds on H.virginana are borne at the same time as the flowers.

Hamamelis belong to the genera Hamamelidaceae with 4 species from both North America and E.Asia. They grow best on a neutral or acid soil that holds moisture well. Loves to be planted with lots of organic matter. They are pretty easy to look after as well, with the only pruning required is to remove weak growth if required to do so after they have finished flowering. Many plants are grafted so watch out for root stock coming up and remove when they occur. Best to do it when they are flowering to avoid removing the wrong ones. You can prune they back hard if required but they do take a long time to recover from this.

The collection at Sir Harold Hiller Gardens has roots far back in time. Sir Harold Hillier was friends with Jelena and Robert de Belder, who bred many of the hybrids at Kalmthout Arboretum in Belgium. They now hold the Plant Hertiage National Collection of Hamamelis within the gardens as well as 13 other collections, the biggest number held by one garden.The collection of 140 named cultivars and speices (some are herbarium specimens only sadly) is now spread around the gardens, with most of the plants in the Winter Garden and in Ten Acres East, just near  the redeveloped Centennial border. This is also the area I first discovered them, I can still remember the day to this day, it was a cold January day, soon after I had started working there as a young 18yr old, just starting out in the big world of horticulture. I arounded a bend when this smell just hit me, what is it? where does it come from?, what on earth could be producing this stunning scent? So I started looking and saw the red, orange and yellow haze in the trees, I had to look closer! And they looked and smelt even more beautiful! From that moment on, my love affair started with them and it is stil going strong to this day!

These plants below are just a small selection of the speices and forms that can be found at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. There are loads more there waiting for your eyes and noses to discover them!

Hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between H. japonica and H. mollis. The leaves are pretty large and these tend not to be the strongest smelling of all the Hamamelis. The flowers tend to be from 2-3cm+ in size and borne January-March.hamamelis x intermedia jelena (3).JPG

H.x intermedia ‘Jelena’ (left)is one of the best, flowers are large and a coppery red colour borne on a spreading vigorous plant. Also one of the best for autumn colour. Raised at Kalmthout Arboretum and named after one of the owners and friend to Sir Harold, Jelena de Belder, received Award of Merit (1955) and Award of Garden Merit (1984) by the RHS.

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H. x intermedia ‘Moonlight’ (right)again is large shrub with large pale sulphur-yellow flowers that are highly scented, leaves turn yellow in the autumn

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H.x intermedia ‘Cyrille’ (left) a good open vase shaped shrub that carries these large flowers best described as strawberry base going to staw-yellow. good scent. introduced in 2002 from the de Belder hybrids.


H.x intermedia ‘Strawberries and Cream’ (right) This delightful form should be more at home at wimbledon than the winter garden. It has a slight scent to go with the yellow tipped red flowers.

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H.x intermedia ‘Vesna’ (left) named after the Russian Goddess of spring and it couldn’ have a better name! the yellow flowers with a red base are highly scented and large as well. Autumn colour is good, with shades of red, yellow and orange

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H.x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ (right)A lovely form, one of my favourites, almost for the name alone. a great orange clone thats well scented and has great autumn colour of mixed red, orange and yellow.A de Belder raised form.

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H. x intermedia ‘Ripe Corn’ (left) What a brilliant name! For me the brightest of all the yellow forms. Another one raised by the de Belder’s

H. x intermedia ‘Pallida’ (right)One of the best and most popular of all flowering forms with very good sweet scent and good yellow autumn colour. Won a RHS Award of Merit in 1932

Hamamelis mollis is a Known as the Chinese Witch Hazel. The leaves are more rounded and large soft and hairy with generally speaking yellow autumn colour. The flowers are highly sweetly scented, normally different shades of yellow and mainly over 2.5cm in size. They are bourne from December to March. They were introduced by C.Maries (H.mollis ‘Coombe Wood’) 1879, then Augustine Henry (H.mollis Boskoop’)and then by E.H.Wilson a bit later.  hamamelis mollis boskoop.JPG

Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’(left) was a form grown in Holland as straight mollis until 1988 when it was decided it was indeed a slightly different form and was named. Thought to be from the seeds collected by Augustine Henry around 1890.


H.mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ (right)again has large highly scented pale yellow flowers and was selected from a large old plant growing at RHS Wisley.
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H.mollis ‘Princeton Gold’ (left)This lovely form was found growing in some seedlings at Princeton Nurseries, New York. Good form with good scent and drops it leaves quicly in the Autumn.
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H.mollis ‘Early Bright’ (right) One of the first of the H.mollis forms to flower with a beautiful scent. Tends to hold onto its leaves into the winter months


H.mollis ‘Jermyns Gold’ (left) believed to be part of the original seedling from Ernest Wilsons introduction but like ‘Boskoop’ has been found to be a better form. Very good yellow coloured autumn colour.

Hamamelis japonica is also know as the Japanese Witch Hazel. It is a large spreading shrub with more of a diamond shaped leaf that H.mollis and the flowers are also a little bit smaller 2-3cm in size. Very good autumn colour.hamamelis japonica rubra (2).JPG

H.japonica ‘Rubra’(left) is the red form, upright grower and not too highly scented, not too highly scented.

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H.japonica ‘Sulphurea’ (right) Again small pale sulphur yellow flowers with a little sweet scent, borne on a large spreading shrub.

Hamamelis vernalis. Izard Witch Hazel as it is more commonly known, is a wide spreading shrub, native to America, that tend to have very small flowers not often bigger than 2mm in size and range from pale yellow to red, borne in January and February. They can be heavily scented. They tend to turn a yellow colour in the autumn.
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H.vernalis ‘Autumn Embers’ (left) Was selected by Roy Klehm of Beaver Creek Nurseries, Illinois, USA in 1995 and starts red at the base before going to a coppery-red at the tips, with good scent as well. It has great red autumn colour.

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H.vernalis ‘Dora county in Arkansaw’ (right)it has tiny tiny coppery colour flowers with good scent, borne on a spreading shrub.

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Hamamelis virginana. More commonly known as the American Witch Hazel. This is the speices that is commercial grown for its bark and leaves that are made into the Witch Hazel lotion used as a astringent and applied to the skin for the treatment of things like burns, insect bites, swellings and other skin complaints. It was originally used by the native Americans before being discovered in 1789. The flowers are very small and not too highly scented and tend to be borne much earlier than others, really from September to November. It grows to about 6m tall with the leaves being more oval than other forms with great autumn colour.  It’s not really grown as a garden plant but is used as a root stock to graft other forms of Hamamelis too.

This is a very small range of Hamamelis that are on show at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and it’s well worth a visit at anytime. it was established by the great plantsman Sir Harold Hillier in 1953 with a aim of bringing together the biggest comprehensive collection of trees and shrubs and now covers 180 acres. it was gifted to Hampshire County Council in 1977. as well as 14 national collections, it currently has one of the largest collection of champion trees. It is open every day apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It costs from £9.90 for adult to enter.It is also a RHS partner garden with free access for members in January and Febuary.  The other national collection holder is Witch Hazel Nursery, The Granary, Cranbrook Farm, Sittingbourne, Kent.

Full website is http://www3.hants.gov.uk/hilliergardens/hillier-info.htm. It can be found Jermyns Lane, Romsey, Hampshire, SO51 0QA

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