Following a tip-off I took a surreptitious trip to a particular garden centre. Under cover of broad daylight on a cold, crisp day I pull up in the carpark giddy with the same anticipation and excitement of a first internet date. You already know what to expect in terms of general appearance and personality but will they be as tall, as witty, as vibrant in the flesh as your imagination wants to believe?
Like being over-squirted with aftershave by that lady in Debenhams, only doubly so, I break through the eye-wateringly heady perfume wall of the 300 unsold Sarcococcas that I hadn't come to see, and make a bee line for the reds, yellows and oranges of the witch hazels across this crowded room. For the record, I don't think bees ever make a bee-line for a witch hazel, A) they should be in bed and B) it would be unfair on the flies who need something to eat in February.
Hamamelis intermedia 'Ruby Glow' with Calamagrostis brachytricha
Essentially bare twigs brandishing little sea anemones reaching out to grasp the winter air, witch hazels are a weird and wondrous sight. Having visited Chris Lane's witch hazel nursery Open Day in Kent last year on an atrociously wet day and still been won over by them, I had a shortlist already. None of these varieties were on sale here today but I wasn't going home empty-handed! Like when you go to buy fillet steak and come away with rump, it's not much of a compromise.
They had 'Arnold Promise', pallida, 'Firecracker', 'Ruby Glow' and 'Orange Beauty'. I already have an orange, 'Jelena' that I'm very happy with, and I think I'll postpone getting a yellow - some mad person may mistake it for forsythia, so I decide on red.
They have two sizes. The smaller size of 12-18" high would suit a winter pot arrangement with snowdrops and heathers underneath as the witch hazel flowers are closer to the ground. But I'm thinking border, so I give all the 4' ones a thorough look up and down, it's okay there's no-one around. I'm there, checking out the position and number of stems and flowers and buds, standing back to see the silhouette, bringing one forward, then the next. One is lob sided, another has just two stems but upright, another has four but all splaying forward. I feel a bit like I'm choosing a puppy, though when buying plants is no time to go for the runt of the litter!
I lean in time and again to inhale the soft scent of their flowers and glance around at the others and pace about a little more, admiring their range of dogwoods before coming back, plumping for my winning specimen of 'Ruby Glow', a cooked-rhubarb red. I carry her high on the hip to the tills like a proud father, but playing it cool like I just happened to be passing...