On Friday afternoon I took a short detour on my journey down to Rye and called in to visit Chris Lane's Hamamelis nursery in Newington, Kent. Home to the largest National Hamamelis collection outside of national arboretums, I foolishly expected grand signs from several miles out to show me the way. This was not the case. My sat nav took up a small lane to a wooden gate across a courtyard surrounded by old farm buildings, a corner of which have been converted to create the home Chris and his wife Diane live in. Chris and his black labrador greeted me and showed me around the 8 acre site which is home to 5 national collections! Hamamelis is the oldest dating back to 1979-80 when Chris started collecting them, like myself enchanted by the beauty and scent of the flowers and their resilience to anything that even the harshest of winter weather could throw at them. Others include Wisteria, flowering cherries, Parottia and Amelanchier. All are maintained solely by Chris himself. I had been looking forward to my visit for almost a year since last February when I had started the application process for my collection to be recognised as a National Collection by the Plant Heritage Society, and I was not to be disappointed! Row upon row of gorgeous shrubs clothed in their beautiful spidery petalled flowers, all emitting their sweet spicy fragrance on a mild January afternoon. What a wonderful show to be able to walk along and compare the flower size, petal length, curliness, colour, scent and the habit of each variety, and to be told the history of the breeding behind virtually every cultivar by Chris himself was an honour. I was totally engrossed by his stories of how many of the names came about, and as we approached the one called Hamamelis x intermedia 'Chris' the sun just peeped out from behind the clouds and lit up the whole bush like a glowing beacon. I was delighted to have come away with 3 additions for my own collection, one of which is 'Chris', and will appropriately remind me of this special visit for years to come each January when it comes into bloom at Green Island. I also came away with resolve to add so many more varieties as and when I can get hold of them......H.'Rochester' which Chris reckons to be one of the best for scent and lots of H.vernalis varieties with different coloured flowers. Not as showy in flower as the H.mollis, or the H.x intermedia cultivars but far superior for autumn colour.
Chris and Molly H. x 'Foxy Lady' H. x 'Chris' Rows of different cultivars
I left with a sense of how important these collections are, but also slightly concerned as to what will happen to Chris' collection after he is no longer able to maintain it himself as neither of his children or any of his grandchildren are interested in it. No price tag can be put on the value of his lifetime of propagating by grafts and raising new cultivars from seed. Polytunnels house plants at all stages of the 4-5 year process of grafting new plants. Chris uses H. virginiana as the rootstock for his grafts, all grown from seed which itself is a 2 year process. He has imported graftwood from China, Japan and the States and reckons he achieves about 80% success rates. More recently some have been grafted onto closely related Parottia rootstock as they are slightly more drought resistant than Hamamelis. To see the lengthy process of raising from seed, selecting cultivars worth naming or the grafting process it makes the price tag in nurseries for one of these versatile plants seem such good value.
I will return!