Witch Hazel

The witch hazels (Hammamelis mollis) near the walled garden can often be seen in full flower at this time of year when we have a mild winter, filling the air for fifty yards with their sweet scent. Learn a bit more about this sweet smelling plant further down the page….


The Gunnera (the giant rhubarb-like plant) should be showing their pink, furry growth buds poking from beneath the brown rotting mass of last years leaves.


The hellebores and snowdrops are real stalwarts of the moment and look really cheerful on a sunny day. The garden barely seems to have slept this winter and some of the Camellias are looking really colourful already.

Camellia ‘Donation’ is a totally reliable pink variety and probably the most commonly found variety. I also love ‘Cornish Snow’ which has masses of little white flowers which the honey bees love.

Some of our Rhododendrons are confused as to the time of year and there are plenty big fat buds everywhere awaiting springtime.

Roddy Milne, our Head Gardener, loves to share his passion for plants. Each week throughout the month we will add one of his favourites….

Stinking Gladwin

Iris foetidissima

Iris foetidissima is native to much of Western Europe including the British Isles. There are few plants that can boast as many common or local names. Most are far from flattering and include such titles as Stinking Iris, Gladdon, Gladwin Iris, Roast-beef Plant, Stinking Gladwin and Adder’s Meat.

From these names you would imagine that you could smell this plant from 100 paces however the names refer to the smell given off by the leaves when they are crushed. Some people find this odour unpleasant, while others describe it as “beefy”. It is definitely far removed from the smell of roast beef which is sometimes quoted! Despite the rather harsh array of common names this plant was once highly valued as a medicinal herb, primarily for making poultices for drawing out splinters and the odd arrow head.

Iris foetidissima forms clumps of glossy, dark, evergreen leaves and produces intricate flowers that are hardly show-stopping, being of a curious combination of pale-mauve tinged with buff-yellow. The seed pods that develop after flowering split open in autumn to reveal the very attractive bright orange seeds that cling to the pods throughout the winter. These seeds are ignored by birds and provide months of interest.

In a garden setting this is a very useful plant for growing in dry, heavily shaded places beneath trees, although as with most plants recommended for dry shade it will be just as happy growing in less extreme conditions. It is relatively slow growing and will slowly form a handsome clump. Some of the clumps here at Picton must be at least forty years old and are less than a metre across and are at the moment hanging with their delightful bright seeds.

The European Chain Fern

Woodwardia radicans2

We do not often think of the middle of winter as being an impressive time for ferns, however there is one evergreen species that becomes all the more apparent because most other ground vegetation has died away. It is known as the ‘European Chain Fern’ or Woodwardia radicans.

The chain fern gains its common name from the chain-like appearance of the spore-producing structures, known as sori, on the underside of the leaf. It is not native to Britain but comes from the Atlantic islands, such as the Canaries, and southwestern Europe including islands of the Mediterranean such as Corsica and Crete.

Given a sheltered home in a milder part of Britain, such as Pembrokeshire, Woodwardia will grow very happily and produce fronds 1.5 metres long. This wonderful dramatic fern has quite simple fronds with none of the divided complexity of which many ferns are capable. This feature, when combined with the large size that this fern is able to grow to, makes an impressive statement. Our plants have continued growing throughout this mild winter. Each plant produces arching, pale green fronds which, when the tip arches over to reach the ground, is likely to sprout a new plant from this point. By this means it is capable of slowly colonising an area of ground.

Woodwardia enjoy growing in moist soil in a shaded area. It is worth avoiding frost pockets and, if in a deeply shaded area where few other plants will grow, it will become effective groundcover and able to out compete other plants. In one or two large gardens I have also seen it used very effectively as a very large pot plant for display indoors or in conservatories. Despite its easy means of propagation (digging up young plants that have rooted from frond tips) Woodwardia is very rarely seen for sale however it is worth searching out this spectacular plant.

The West Himalayan Birch

Betula jacquemontii

For me there are few more wintery scenes than birch trees in snowy landscapes. They seem perfectly designed for this scene with delicate frosted twigs, weeping with the extra weight and stems and trunks with a colouring that makes them almost invisible against snow and chill grey skies. It seems so much removed from this mild, wet winter of bright green fields.

There is another type of birch tree that is very popular with gardeners and designers. B. utilis var. jacquemontii or the ‘West Himalayan birch’, is a sturdy upright growing tree capable of growing 15m. It is larger growing and with bigger leaves than our native birches. With stout twigs and little of the pendulous delicacy of our native species it does however possess perhaps the most dramatic bark of any tree that can be grown in Britain. On mature specimens this bark can be pure white and completely smooth. As with other birches, the old bark peels away as it grows, revealing the new bark underneath. It is always tempting to help this process by pulling at the flapping peelings, but this can damage the new bark beneath. In autumn the leaves turn yellow before they fall and in the spring, before the new leaves emerge, mature trees will produce separate male and female catkins. The male ones are yellow-brown and around ten centimetres long and can make quite a dramatic feature.

This species of birch comes from the Himalaya where its ultimate size and bark colour can be very varied. Here the paper-like bark of the tree was harvested and used in ancient times for writing Sanskrit scriptures.

In cultivation there are quite a few different varieties of this tree available, some of which has attractive pink, almost flesh coloured bark and even one variety with dark mahogany colouration. It is however the pure white ones which are the most dramatic and a very popular choice for gardens and landscaping schemes. It is a vigorous and easy tree to grow and will start to show its true bark colours even when a few years old. The effect will improve every year as the tree matures.

Witch-Hazel for the Winter

Hamamelis mollis in part of the Gardens called The Arctic Circle

Hamamelis mollis in part of the Gardens called The Arctic Circle

There are a few plants that when met for the first time are never forgotten. This may be because they are massive, such as the Giant-Rhubarb (Gunnera), or strange and very smelly, like the Skunk-Cabbage (Lysichitum), but it is rare the memory relies so heavily on the scent of a flower. This is the case with Hamamelis, commonly known as Witch-Hazel.

With their leafless branches festooned with spidery, sweet smelling flowers which are evident from Christmas to the end of January, these plants are truly memorable. The flowers are quite small with each petal being very narrow and about two centimetres long, but are borne in such profusion that on a warm, still day the perfumed wafts can be smelt a hundred metres away!

The ornamental Witch-Hazels often grown in gardens are closely related to another species (Hamamelis virginiana) which is well known as a skin cleanser and for speeding the recovery from bruising. The extract is derived from the leaves and bark of the plant.

Hamamelis are quite large, wide-spreading shrubs eventually growing to around three metres, so allow them plenty of room. They can be pruned, annually if necessary, just after flowering to keep them of manageable size. They are easy to grow and pretty tough but the one thing they really do not like is poorly drained or waterlogged soil. Such places must be avoided as the winter wet will quickly rot the roots.

Hamamelis mollis with its rich yellow flowers is the most commonly encountered variety but my favourite is the ‘Pallida’ which has slightly larger pale yellow flowers. In recent years quite a large number of different varieties have been introduced with red or orange flowers but I think the yellow ones stand out best, especially on overcast and wet January days.

Enchanting Daphne

Daphne is a figure of Greek mythology and the daughter of the River God, Peneus. She is a nymph associated with fountains, springs and brooks and such was her great beauty that she attracted the overzealous attention of Apollo. To save her, her father turned her into a laurel tree.

The name Daphne has been given to a wonderful and alluring race of shrubs that includes two species (D. laureola and D. mezereum) that are native to Great Britain. All Daphne produce a glorious scent and all can be a little fickle in their cultivation requirements. They like a sunny position with well drained moisture retentive soil and will not tolerate drought or water-logging. They also prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soils. A little demanding, but well worth it.

Daphne bholua can often be found in full flower at this time of year if we have a mild winter and it wins the prize for the most scented plant I know. The pink flowers, which are two centimetres across, are borne in profusion and fill the air with a powerful sweet fragrance.

It is native to the Himalaya mountain range where it grows to around three metres tall but rarely reaches this height when grown in British gardens. There are a number of cultivars available with good names such as ‘Jacqueline Postill’, ‘Gurka’ or ‘Darjeeling’. All are worthy of a choice spot in your garden where they can lure you out of the house during the winter to enjoy their scent.