Thursday 27 June 2019

Witch's touch of colour

Winter blooming Witch Hazel 'Jelena'.
Winter blooming Witch Hazel 'Jelena'.

Gerry Daly

One of the most pleasing of late winter and early spring plants, the witch hazel, has been outstanding this year with masses of flowers. Large numbers of flower buds were laid down last year in a good summer of growth, and the relatively mild winter weather has encouraged early flowering.

The flowers are remarkable, carried on bare stems in clusters that make a rounded, somewhat spiky, boss of petals. The petals are narrow like tiny ribbons, turning and twisting away from the flower bud. Even though they seem impossibly delicate, they are very durable and can even withstand being iced over for a time.

The twisting crimped petals have a visual liveliness about them that is almost defiant of the harsh weather of late winter. The colour of most kinds is yellow or orange yellow, good colours for attracting early-flying pollinators such as bumblebees. But witch hazel does not depend on its clustered petals alone to attract pollinators. It produces a very fragrant sweet scent that drifts a distance from the plant on a mild day.

The foliage of witch hazel, its size and shape, and the size of the bush, are very similar to those of the true hazel. It must have been quite a surprise to the early European settlers of North America when the flowers appeared. There are also species in China and Japan and these have larger flowers.

Though often described as a shrub, witch hazel is really a small tree that branches low down, and needs about five metres of space. There are lots of varieties, the most popular being 'Pallida', a variety with pale yellow flowers. 'Jelena' has pretty reddish orange flowers. 'Arnold Promise' has large yellow flowers and 'Diane' has ruby-red flowers. It is a good idea to visit garden centres and see the plants in flower, as witch hazel begins flowering as a quite small plant.

In autumn, witch hazel shows excellent foliage colour, the yellow-flowered varieties having bright yellow leaves and the orange and red kinds showing crimson-red colour. It offers a second season of garden interest. The Virginian witch hazel flowers in autumn as the leaves fall.

Witch hazel is easy to grow, but must have the right soil conditions. It is native to open woodland in clearings and at the margin of woodland. It needs neutral or acidic soil, not likely to dry out in summer, and it must be well-drained, not wet in winter. In limey soils, a 15cm layer of well-decayed leaf-mould can be dug into an area of two metres diameter to acidify the soil. A few handfuls of iron sulphate can be scattered per square metre, and mulches of rotted leaves each year or two will render the soil neutral or slightly acidic, feed the tree and retain moisture in summer. It's worth the trouble!

Q I get a much- reduced crop of blackcurrants by removing the big buds now. Is there any cure other than destroying the plants?

A Big bud mite is a tiny mite that feeds in the bud, causing it to swell. These buds do not open flowers and removing the buds is a good solution, though not if you have to remove nearly all of the buds. You can try cutting it to ground level, picking off rounded buds, or you can start again with clean plants or the resistant variety 'Ben Hope'.

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