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Cornucopia - Scent for Winter

Scent for Winter
James McCombe

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida' (Chinese Witch Hazel): if any plant is the harbinger of better weather and spring on the way then this must be it, flowering in January/February. A plant that was found at Wisley of unknown parentage and now considered to be a hybrid, though I am sure they could find out if they wanted to but that would serve no purpose. We hear a lot about snowdrops and their mass displays which undoubtedly are superb, but the intensity of these plants’ spidery sulphur yellow flowers in the sunlight is a must for those gardens that have little in flower at this time of year. The flowers which are the largest in the genus have strap shaped petals about 20 mm long and slightly twisted rising from the 2-3 mm wine coloured sepals on the inside. At the centre are the anthers with the matching sulphur coloured pollen. The flowers are born in clusters and they are scented if you can get close enough to get the scent. The warmer the temperature and being in a warm sheltered site will give off the strongest scent. The shrub itself grows to about 1.8 m high and as much across and with a fairly twiggy structure to it. Like a lot of plants in my garden that I should not really have there, I prune them to keep them in their allotted space.

Forget about all the reds and oranges and all the others, get this one. The downside to this plant is the price so get a small plant through mail order or one from Binny Plants by collection.

Another gem for the garden is the January/February flowering Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis. Introduced for Veitches nursery from China by E. H. Wilson, affectionately known as 'Chinese Wilson' through his wanderings in that country and his need to disguise himself for health reasons. The Veitches originated previously from the Hawick area and came to London in the late 18th century. 16 year old John Veitch was an apprentice to a local tree nursery, in the Hawick area, and later he established his own nursery which was engaged in stiff competition, in the early 1900s, with A.K. Bulley, founder of Bees nursery. Bees had an extensive catalogue of introductions from the Himalaya, Nepal and Tibet through George Forrest, a protégé of Isaac Bailey Balfour, one time Regius Keeper of Edinburgh Botanic Gardens.

This plant forms fairly dense stiff thickets with clusters of flowers coming from the axils of the 60 mm long evergreen leaves 20 mm wide on red stalks. One of its great strengths is the fact it has highly fragrant flowers. What we see and call the flowers are actually the prominent white stamens which arise from the pinkish sepals. The flowers are unisexual and have no petals and the female flowers are less significant than the males. A sheltered spot in a moist site in light shade does this plant no harm. My specimen is still small, so I have yet to find out the unforeseen problems that await me. I acquired this last year from Binny Plants, always having been on my must have list and is unlikely to be found in your average garden centre. Avoid the much larger and more aggressive Sarcococca hookeriana.

First published in the Scottish & Northern Borders Group Newslette, Spring 2008
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 24
© Copyright for this article: James McCombe

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2009. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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