‘Jelena’ Witch Hazel, Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’
My garden will never make me famous
I’m a horticultural ignoramus
I can’t tell a string bean from a soybean
Or even a girl bean from a boy bean
Questions of bean gender aside, there are occasional, horticultural, true-love stories within our ongoing pastime of “who does your garden grow?” Prime example this time is our late-winter, blooming beauty, ‘Jelena’ Witch Hazel, Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ (pronounced Ya-lay-na). This love story commenced in what is today the Kalmthout Arboretum, outside of Antwerp, Belgium, in the mid-1950’s. A century earlier the site began as a plant nursery, passing through two different lengthy ownerships before World War I and the ensuing economic collapse finally closed the business. In 1952 Robert de Belder (1921-1995) and his brother Georges bought the then overgrown, weed covered land/estate. In a raison d’etre echo to Mount Auburn’s and Longwood Gardens’ beginnings, the de Belders, local diamond traders, bought the site to preserve the mature and even rare trees from a proposed housing development.
On a separate life path, heading towards convergence, we introduce Jelena Kovacic (1925-2003), born in what is now Croatia, with a 1951 agronomy degree from the University of Zagreb. With a rare travel permit abroad, this botanist/horticulturist was in 1953/54 studying nurseries and horticultural sites in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and ultimately Belgium. Hearing about mature, rare Stewartias along with other ancient trees brought her to the de Belder’s new work-in-progress. A romance quickly developed with Robert, and these plant aficionados were married within three months.
Jelena joined the de Belder brothers, working to restore, replant, re-design and enlarge the long fallow property using a naturalistic style. The extensive plant diversity on the property included thickets with hybrids of witch hazels from the earlier nurseries. One attractive unnamed selection, shown at the Royal Horticultural Society in London, in 1954, was very popular. Robert named this Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ in honor of his new wife.
Hamamelis, a small genus with but four (five) species worldwide, produce spider-shaped yellow or orange flowers, each with four, one-half-inch-long, narrow, strap-shaped petals. The two Asian species and their hybrids (crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazel) curiously produce their flowers during February and March. ‘Jelena’ in bloom, at first glance has a warm coppery-orange color. Look closer at the flowers to often see petals with reddish bases, orange centers and yellow tips.
Our ‘Jelena’ Witch Hazels on Snowdrop Path, Buckthorn Path and Sparrow Path have shimmered in the otherwise sparse winter landscape after each of the modest February snowfalls we have had so far. The tiny petals protectively curl up during extreme cold and more serious snowstorms, which allows the flowers to last four to seven weeks. ‘Jelena’ additionally will provide attractive red-orange autumn colored leaves.
The de Belders achieved notoriety for breeding Hamamelis cultivars and another winning selection was ‘Diane’, a striking red-flowered cultivar. Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Diane’ was named to honor Jelena and Robert’s daughter. A fine specimen of ‘Diane’ may be found on the southern end of Indian Ridge Path. Both Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Jelena’ and Hamamelis xintermedia ‘Diane’ have received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
Look for these winter beauties along with other witch hazels as the calendar turns to March.
Let us whir with the golden spoke-wheels
Of the sun.
For tomorrow Winter drops into the waste-basket,
And the calendar calls it March.