Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Chinese witch hazel

The Corylopsis sinensis var. sinensis in the little half moon shaped bed below the rose bank is full out.  This is a Chinese species (the clue's in the name) which evidently likes its position in slightly damp but not heavy soil, lightly shaded for the first part of the day, and well sheltered from the wind.  However these things are partly in the lap of the gods.  Its predecessor, Corylopsis willmottiae 'Spring Purple', planted in almost identical conditions on the opposite side of the lawn, appeared to do very well for a couple of years and then died quickly and dramatically for no reason that I could discover.  I think that what was sold as C. willmottiae back in 1997 is the same species as is now designated C. sinensis var. sinensis on the RHS website.

Corylopsis are in the same family as witch hazels, and most of them prefer acid conditions and that fabled entity, moist but well drained soil.  Our soil is acid, and the current Corylopsis has ended up in the sweet spot as regards moisture.  As you go along the base of the rose bank the ground gets steadily damper, to the point where after prolonged heavy rain the water table comes to the surface at one end.  An Edgworthia chrysantha planted at what turned out to be the wet end died of drowning one very rainy winter, and a Lonicera elisae has still not recovered since half drowning in the wet winter a few years ago.  By the time you get to the two Daphne bholua and the Corylopsis you are on terra firma, and in a dry county they get enough moisture to make them happy.

The Corylopsis has the charming characteristic of flowering before its leaves break, so the display is not hidden by greenery.  The flowers are soft yellow, lightly scented, individually tiny, and held in little dangling racemes.  The remains of the scales that protected the buds through the winter remain at the top of each raceme, looking like miniature hats loosely modelled on the Sidney Opera House.  The whole effect is delightful, and coordinates very well with the primroses which are just getting into their stride.  'Spring Purple' also has yellow flowers, but purple flushed young foliage, if it lives.

I was not really expecting the Corylopsis to grow as fast and large as it has, or perhaps I was ignoring the problem as I attempted to shoehorn as many shrubs as possible into the end of the bed where they would not drown.  Tucked into its skirts are a Pieris and a replacement Edgeworthia, and to the other side is an Amelanchier 'Ballerina'.  They are rubbing along together so far, but if some of them don't slow down soon I may have to make a painful choice about what comes out.  In the meantime I sometimes take the odd branch out of the Corylopsis to prevent it from overpowering its smaller neighbours.  I don't remember ever reading an article about pruning them, but am not convinced it is a terrible idea, as long as you try to keep the remaining branches growing in a graceful line and don't chop it all over like a hedgehog.  When we went garden visiting in Cornwall some years ago I noticed a lot of Corylopsis that were flowering madly about fifteen feet above the ground but had become completely bald and leggy at eye level, and I wondered then if a steady regime of tipping them back would have maintained more cover at the base.

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