One of the stars of my garden in winter is a Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’. This is another plant with multiple monikers, including Contorted Hazelnut, Contorted Filbert, Corkscrew Hazel, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick and Old Man’s Walking Stick.
The Contorted Hazel is probably the best known contorted plant commonly in cultivation, and perhaps the most contorted! Its fabulous branches seem to have little sense of gravity, flipping and curling quite delightfully, almost as if they were illustrated by Theodore Seuss Geissel.
I’ve always wondered about the common name “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick” so I looked it up. Apparently Harry Lauder (1870-1950) was a famous Scottish entertainer who used a crooked walking stick. Not necessarily one of Contorted Filbert.
Corkscrew Hazel is an undemanding shrub, growing well in partial to full sun and any reasonable soil that is neither swampy nor desert-like. It grows fairly slowly to about 6’-8’ tall, spreading into a gnarly thicket at least as wide. In fact, many years ago there was one growing at a garden centre where I worked in Victoria BC that was easily 12-15 feet wide. During a landscape renovation it was destroyed because it had eaten half the garden. I was rather sad to see such a venerable specimen go. It had several small bird nests inside when we chopped it down, no doubt it provided great cover and habitat for nesting.
During summer, my Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ is smothered in roundish, coarse, toothed leaves that are not particularly attractive. After they drop in autumn, revealing the twisted branches, this easy to grow shrub begins its season of beauty. If you plant one in your garden I would suggest that you find a way to light it at night to emphasize its structure. I planted mine underneath a street light with limited success (the light source is really too far away).
Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ is very deer resistant, they’ve never even nibbled on mine and it sits right beside a deer path in my front garden. I guess those coarse leaves aren’t very tasty!
Early spring catkins droop gracefully from the convoluted branches, shedding clouds of pollen during dry periods in late February or March. The female flowers, like other Corylus, are small roundish bumps that extrude tiny, neon red styles to capture the pollen.
If you plant a Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ in your garden, understand that it will be grafted to a Corylus rootstock which is NOT contorted and they are prone to suckering. Watch out for shoots that grow straight up from the base of the plant and remove them as soon as possible. If you don’t, the understock will eventually take over and you will lose your lovely twisty branches. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Corkscrew Hazel growing in gardens with a big tuft of straight branches shooting up from the bottom. I’m always tempted to whip out my pruners and fix the problem, but people don’t always take kindly to crazed gardeners brandishing sharp weapons on their private property!