If you are experiencing any post-Crimbo or New Year blues or just fancy seeing something to brighten up your day, you could a lot worse than come and visit us in the gardens here at Chartwell right now! There is plenty to see and do and one plant in particular is catching everyone’s eye at the moment. Our Winter Border may be only 18 months old but it is still well worth a look, if only to let your eyes and nostrils experience the Hamamelis mollis, as seen in the picture above.
Also known as the Chinese Witch Hazel, this specimen is one of three Hamamelis shrubs in our Winter Border which itself can be found at the bottom of the Orchard, on the other side of the wall from the Kitchen Garden. I planted these shrubs so that their flowering times would be staggered to increase the period of interest. H. mollis is the first to strut its horticultural stuff, but a little patience will be rewarded with the following…
Originally found by European plant hunter Charles Maries, Hamamelis mollis was introduced to England in 1879 for Veitch Nurseries and given the clonal name ‘Coombe Wood’. Then in 1918, another great plant collector, Ernest Henry Wilson, introduced further plants from a different area of China that were better suited to our climate. H. mollis is a native of the West Hubei and Kiangsi provinces and grows naturally in scrub and woodland from 1500m to 2500m. The selected forms of the plant that you or I could buy in the local garden centre are usually grafted onto the vigorous North American Hamamelis virginiana to improve the growth habit, rather than grown on their own roots.
Hamamelis aren’t just pleasing to look at though. The scented flowers also smell pretty darn good too. In fact, you will often find that most flowers blooming in the Winter have strong scents because they have to work that much harder to attract any pollinating insects to them. Another bonus tick in the box for the humble Hamamelis is the well known medicinal properties it can offer. The soothing, mildly antiseptic properties of the distillate from witch hazel bark have been known for many years and it is still used in medicine that you can buy today. These healing properties were recognised by early settlers in North America, and it is thought that they gave the plant its common ‘witch hazel’ name.
There are two schools of thought as to how the Hamamelis got its scientific name though. One is that ‘hamamelis’ is the greek name for ‘pear shaped fruit’ and has lent itself to this shrub due to its oval or pear-shaped leaves. The other is that the greek word ‘hama’ means ‘together’ and ‘mela’ means ‘fruit’, referring to the fact that this shrub presents both its leaves and fruit at the same time. The Latin term ‘mollis’ means ‘soft’, and refers to the felted leaves.
The branches of the witch hazel are also pliant and were originally used for water divining. Hamamelis mollis in particular was given the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1922. The flowering stems can also be cut and used in floral arrangements at a time of year when there is perhaps little else to bring into the house.
So the next time you’re visiting Churchill’s gardens, come along to the Winter Border where along with our impressive witch hazels, you might also spot some of the following…