Clear case of mistaken plant identity

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It was a classic case of mistaken identity.

To be fair to myself – it was also my first time dining in a high-end restaurant – specifically, La Brochette in downtown Vancouver, back in the early 1980s.

It all began when I started dipping my spit-roasted quail (wrapped in bacon and accompanied with grilled okra) in what I thought was a bowl of sauce, albeit a bit weak tasting.

Thankfully, I knew the chef, so when he approached (grinning from ear to ear) and asked me how I liked the lemon sauce – I told him that it seemed quite bland.

He suggested that was probably because it was a finger bowl and most people disliked sticking their digits in thick sauce, unless of course, they were eating chicken strips.

Suffice it to say, I learned my lesson well and haven’t made the same mistake since – mostly because I rarely eat out at expensive restaurants.

I see this same sort of mix-up played out at garden centres with people assuming that Winter Hazel (Corylopsis) and Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) are much the same shrubs. While there’s no mistaking the two when in bloom, I suppose a casual glance at the tag and the similar-looking summer foliage might fool the best of us.

An added incentive appears to be the lower price of Corylopsis, which aren’t grafted like Hamamelis, thus reducing the labour and cost.

Still, it’s a bit disappointing when people put them back after they realize it’s not just a low-priced Witch Hazel.

Actually, both of these large deciduous shrubs are in the same family (Hamamelidaceae) and Corylopsis really is a beautiful genus that deserves to be planted more often.

While you are only likely to find pauciflora and spicata at your local garden centre, sinensis is also occasionally available.

Pauciflora grows wider than tall (2.5 x 1.5m) and has short racemes of pale yellow blooms in early spring before the leaves emerge.

The slightly taller spicata has longer flower clusters with contrasting reddish-purple anthers.

Both these species are absolutely spectacular on those clear days in early March, with their yellow tassels silhouetted against the blue sky.

However, in summer they are just as boring as Hamamelis, with foliage that much resembles that of a hazelnut.

Witch Hazels have a well-deserved reputation for spectacular autumn foliage (particularly ‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’), sweet fragrance (mollis) and winter blooms that perform well through the rigours of the colder weather.

Most of the available cultivars are either mollis or x intermedia (japonica x mollis) varieties – with the most common flower colours being yellow (‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Pallida’), orange (‘Jelena’) and red (‘Old Copper’, ‘Diane’).

These are basically large, upright shrubs (reaching 4m plus) with an open-vase form that makes them ideal as a specimen feature in the home garden.

The December through February blooms really brighten the dullest winter days, and the strap-like petals are relatively unaffected by the rain.

Of local note is a fresh infusion of new or rare Witch Hazels being distributed to garden centres by a Pitt Meadow’s wholesale nursery.

One of my favourites is an unusual pendulous form called Hamamelis vernalis ‘Lombart’s Weeping’, which features a profusion of short orange blooms. Depending on how high it was grafted, you usually have to do a little staking of the topmost branches in order to achieve the ideal height of 2-2.5m.

The other vernalis of interest is the purple-flowered ‘Amethyst’ – although this one is in short supply and may be difficult to find.

They’ve also introduced a line of fall-blooming Hamamelis virginiana cultivars, including ‘Little Suzie’ (a compact form), ‘Champlin’s Red’ (spidery pale red blooms with yellow tips) and ‘Green Thumb’, which is variegated with lime green margins.

The last of these recent arrivals are a pair of Chinese or mollis Witch Hazels – ‘Superba’ features spectacular clear orange blooms, while ‘Gold Edge’ gives us a second choice for foliar variegation with yellow flowers.

Speaking of new introductions, I’ve uploaded several new stories to my garden blog, www.soulofagardener.wordpress.com, as promised – I hope you take the time to read and enjoy them.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at hebe_acer@hotmail.com.