Visit to the National Plant Collection of Hamamelis (Witch Hazel)

Witch hazel nursery

A few years ago I became a member of Plant Heritage. This organisation is all about the conservation of garden plants through National Plant Collections. I am Collections Coordinator for Kent, which is an amazing thing to do. I get to speak to other plant nuts about their collections and geek out over rare and unusual plants they are growing. Quite often the collection holders have a lot of unusual plants outside their collection. A group of first class plantaholics. Today the Kent group visited one of the county’s (if not country’s) greatest collectors of plants: Chris Lane of Witch Hazel nurseries near Sittingbourne.

Chris is a true plant collector who has a passion for many different plants, but he has also bred quite a few plants himself, and even had some named after him. Betula ‘Chris Lane’ and Hamamelis ‘Chris’ are the best known examples.

After Chris welcomed us we walked into the nursery area. The area behind his house has a large vegetable patch with polytunnels at the back. Each tunnel had amazing plants in it. Chris showed us his Parrotia first, another one of his 5 National Collections. Then we saw some flowering cherries that were ready to be planted out, and we entered an area with snowdrops, Helleborus, Erythronium, Camassia and lots of other interesting plants.

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Helleborus

Once we got onto the area of the nursery where his collections are planted in rows, we could smell the Hamamelis from the other side of the field, at least 75 meters away. But before we walked along the rows of Witch Hazel, we went onto another area of the site where Chris was growing Chimonanthus. This shrub, with the common name Winter Sweet, is one of my favourite scented shrubs in winter. We grow a couple at work, but I have to admit that I never realised there was more than just the C. praecox. Chris was growing some plants that had a far deeper yellow than the species I know. The most beautiful one I saw was called C. concolor. The scent on it was amazing as any Winter Sweet should be.

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The very yellow Chimonanthus concolor with a C. praecox below for comparison

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Chris also mentioned a lot of Belgian, German and Dutch growers. I was thrilled to hear him speak about Arboretum Kalmthout, between Breda and Antwerp. I visited many years ago and I remember seeing lots of amazing new plants. It was the first time for instance that I saw a huge Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’, which was in a wooden barrel at their entrance. At the time my parents had just moved to a house with a bigger garden, and we mainly went to see the Rhododendron. I can’t remember seeing any Witch Hazels back then, but scarily it appears that Chris’ first visit was around the same time as my first visit. I always pass the place when I drive to the Netherlands, so must really make an effort and stop there on the way up next time.We then went on to see the National Collection of Hamamelis. The plants stand in rows and usually there are three of each, but if Chris liked a particular one, then he planted six of them. We saw the most amazing colours and Chris explained in a few cases how the plants got their names. Often the cultivars were named after the family members of the breeder, but sometimes it was a chance comment that gave a plant the name. The cultivar ‘Gingerbread’ was one of those where Chris visited a nursery and commented that the colour looked like gingerbread. A few years later he read a book written by the nursery holder and discovered that H. ‘Gingerbread’ had gone into production.

The colours of the Hamamelis ranged from a very pale, almost white flower, to orange, red, and some even bordering on purple. ‘Amethyst’ was the best purple so far and Chris is hopeful he will grow a proper purple one in future. Another colour high on the wish list is white. With some of the plants being very pale yellow, I think we may see that come out at some point as well.

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Hamamelis ‘Amethyst’

Chris has got favourites amongst his collection, but he does admit that his top 10 consists of at least 20 plants. He did say that, if anyone wanted to get one Hamamelis, then they should grow ‘Pallida’

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Chris with his beloved Hamamelis ‘Pallida’

It is so refreshing to walk around with a passionate plantsman like Chris Lane. I tend to recognise a lot of myself in people like him when it comes to that collecting bug us plant nuts seem to have. If I had the space that Chris has, I think I would probably go bankrupt from buying more and more plants to add to a collection. I think Chris is a perfect National Collection holder as he knows his plants inside and out. His general plant knowledge is out of this world and from all the plants he grows he knows its provenance, why it was named the way it was, the history, etc. On top of all of that is that his enthusiasm makes anyone fall in love with any plant he talks about. I can’t wait to go back in April and see his National Collection of flowering cherries and Amelanchier, and in May we will go again to have a look at his Wisteria collection.

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