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New trees for winter colour and wildlife

We usually plant a few trees each winter. This year we have concentrated on the back meadow area, which is rather bare and boring during the cooler months when there are no wild flowers or winding pathways through the grass to create interest. 

We have chosen a mixture of small trees and shrubs that promise to bring fiery bursts of colour to the garden during the winter. 

A man crouched next to young witch hazel tree in a pot
John about to plant our new witch hazel 'Pallida'

Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana)

 We chose hazelnuts as they offer so much. Edible nuts of course, for us and the wildlife (I can imagine the squirrels will often get there first). They don't grow too tall, and can be coppiced to keep them low and to make handy hazel canes for the garden. They are native trees, so have huge wildlife value, including insects that feed on the leaves - several moth caterpillars for example.

For us, a big attraction was the lovely swinging catkins that come in February. Of the four hazels we have planted, three (two Kentish Cob and one Webb's Prize Cobnut bought from organic Kent nursery Victoriana) have the typical yellow catkins. The fourth one is rather more fancy - the Red Majestic, which not only has funky twisted branches, but also red catkins. 

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)

 Despite their similar names, witch hazel and hazelnut are not related, and alas there's no actual link with witches either. The 'witch' part comes from the Old English for flexible or bendy, describing the branches. However, their spidery flowers, powerful fragrance and history of  medicinal use,  lend them more than a little witchy mystique in my view. 

They are not native to the UK, so will not be quite as valuable to such a range of wildlife as the hazelnuts. However, because they flower in winter, they can provide nectar to insects at a time when little else is in flower. 

We have planted two varieties - Pallida, which has yellow flowers and a strong scent, and Jelena which has orange flowers (pictured below). I am so excited to see them bush out and get more colourful as they mature. 

Unfortunately, the spot where we planted them has becoming completely water-logged over the last month! So we decided that the young trees had to be rescued and we moved them to a drier spot, up by the granary. Instead we have popped a lovely twisted willow (see picture) in one of the original witch hazel holes and are on the hunt for another willow to go in the other hole. As willows love to have their roots in wet soil, these are the perfect tree to save the day for our boggy and bare back garden.

A twisted willow tree (Salix toruosa) - saving the day and taking the 'soggy spot'

Spindleberry (Euonymous europaeus)

 I have high hopes for this one! Pictures I have seen show an amazing colour explosion in autumn, when bright pink and orange fruits pop against a backdrop of red leaves. We have planted a cultivated variety called 'Red Cascade'.

As a native shrub it also has stacks of wildlife value. Various moth and butterfly caterpillars feed on its leaves for example. Aphids love the leaves too and this in turn will attract aphid-predators such as hoverflies and ladybirds. Those luscious coloured fruits will hopefully in time lure lots of birds to feast on them (though note that all parts of the plant are toxic to humans). 

Fun fact for you - in the past the branches were used to make spindles for spinning wool - hence the name, spindleberry. 

Medlar (Mespilus germanica)

Finally, the last tree of our new plantings this winter is a medlar. It suits our remit for size and colour, as it is smallish tree (4-6m max), and its leaves have beautiful autumn colouration. We also chose it out of curiosity for its unusual fruit - another addition to our growing collection of edible trees.

In medieval times, when it was much more popular than it is today, the fruit, had a variety of rude nick-names, all likening it to an arse - cul de chien (dog's arse) d'singe (monkey's arse) in France, or simply 'open-arse' in English. See picture below - I think you'll get the idea!

When the fruit is harvested in autumn it is still hard and bitter. The way to eat it is to store it away for a few weeks until it becomes soft and brown - rotten really - but it's known as 'bletted'. This is when the fruit actually tastes sweet and is soft enough to eat - something like the taste of a toffee apple apparently. I'm really curious to try some - although it may be a couple of years before our young tree offers us any fruit.

This one isn't native - it was introduced to Britain by the Romans (just like apples, pears, cherries and quite a few very familiar trees). However, its flowers will provide food for pollinating insects and, if I don't get to them first, I bet the birds will love those toffee apple arses!

I am so excited for all the amazing colour that these trees are going to bring to the back garden as they mature - from pink spindleberry and orange medlar in autumn, to yellow and orange witch hazels through winter, and yellow and red hazelnuts in late winter. What a riot of fiery colours to heat up the cold grey months!

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