Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ – Contorted Hazel

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.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'

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.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'

A gnarly thicket

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.

Corylus flower (female) photo courtesy photobucket

Corylus flower (female)

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!

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'

Can you see the straight branches? Excuse me while I get my pruners...


About hortophile

I am a very opinionated, slightly obsessed gardener with decades of experience in the retail nursery industry. A lucky resident of the "Wet Coast" of British Columbia I tread a muddy path between practicality and beauty, with my veggie patch, herb garden and fruits vying for position with the beautiful trees, shrubs and flowers that I can't resist. DON'T ask me to choose between them! I believe in environmental responsibility and common sense.
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25 Responses to Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ – Contorted Hazel

  1. DENIS BENSON says:

    Hi ,
    I have a query on the contorted hazel that I hope you can help me with. I purchased a container grown speicimen in April of this year and planted it in a very large patio tub with a quality mix of soil and compost. It appeared to me to be a healthy specimen when I planted it and it looked great.

    However!! It is now the end of May and I have no leaves yet on the tree and I am worried!! There are plenty of buds but they are showing little sign of growth. It has been a very cold and windy May here in Ireland but the weather has improved over the past week without any corresponding improvement in the tree. It is in a good sunny spot in a south – westerly facing garden. I have made a little nick or two at the end of one of the branches and there is green/sap under the bark so I think its still alive!!

    Can you let me know if there is any reasons as to why it has been so slow to come in to leaf or do you think the tree is dead!!
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read this,
    Thanks again,
    Denis Benson

    • hortophile says:

      Hi Dennis,

      Thanks for your query! Try nicking the bark just at soil level to see if it’s green and lively looking where the trunk goes into the soil. Sometimes a dead plant will retain a green cambium layer for a while above ground, but if it’s brown at the bottom, I’m sorry but you have some very ornamental kindling!

      I’m going to assume that you’ve planted it in a container with drainage holes and also that you didn’t bury a bunch of the plants’ trunk, am I right?

      You should definitely contact the seller you purchased it from, if it’s some sort of crop failure they will know about it and may offer a replacement or refund.

      It is possible that it’s just very tardy, so barring obvious signs of death I wouldn’t give up just yet, perhaps an application of liquid rooting hormone will give it a kick in the pants. Good luck!

      • DENIS BENSON says:

        Thanks a million for coming back to me on this! I checked this morning before I came in to work at the base of the tree and it is a strong green colour. I nicked the bark and it was also a healthy green underneath. We had very strong winds throughout May, I am living in a housing estate which is about 1km from the sea so I am not sure if this might have slowed the tree down. The buds that are on it are green also – and look healthy but they are still not in leaf. The patio pot it is in is large with good drainage holes and does not appear water logged to me! Do you think I should just leave it alone for another few weeks? I assume if I have no leaves by mid – late June then tree will remain a twig!! Can you let me know how you would advise using the rooting hormone? Are there any available that you can water in?
        Thanks again

      • hortophile says:

        The product I was referring to is often called transplanting fertilizer. I don’t know if it’s available where you live, but look for something with IBA (indole butyric acid) in a liquid form. Of course this isn’t ‘organic’. For a natural root stimulator you could steep some willow tips in water and apply to your contorted hazel’s roots.

  2. Pam says:

    I bought a corkscrew hazel a couple of years ago and it is doing very well where it is but it has alot of straight branches growing on it. Do the branches start out straight and then start to curl later on or should I cut the straight branches off and keep the curled branches exposed? Wil; any curly/knarled branches eventually grow from the bottom or do they grow on the other knarled branches?

    • hortophile says:

      Hi Pam,
      Those straight branches are growing from the rootstock and will never turn curly. In fact they are sapping energy from the curly bits and if you don’t remove them they will overtake the pretty ones and you’ll have a really boring plant! Cut them off as close to the ground as possible and always cut off any straight branches as soon as you notice them.

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  4. yonderwild says:

    I’m a big fan of the Harry Lauder. Thanks for the information. I hope you don’t mind, I linked this post to my blog entry where I mention using the Harry Lauder Walking Sticks in my home decor.
    Thanks, Rachel

  5. Kristin says:

    We bought a contorted filbert last year from our local nursery. It looked quite healthy but within a few weeks after planting, the leaves looked wilted. They stayed that way all summer. We followed the sunlight and watering directions. Stumped by “filbert’s” unhappy appearance, we began looking at other specimens in the neighborhood as well as at other nurseries…they all had the same wrinkled leaves. Could it simply have been the conditions last summer or is this a sign that we are doing something wrong?

    • hortophile says:

      Hi Kristin,

      Contorted filberts DO have somewhat contorted leaves, so it may be just fine. You should check the back or inside of the leaves for an aphid infestation though, they are also somewhat prone to aphids and they cause leaves to twist and curl up too!

  6. Rebecca says:

    Hi there. Looking for advice on contorted hazel and. Find this. Hoorah…. But my question is, why, having produced leaves this spring, a light line, crinkly leaf, are those leaves gong brown before maturation…… It is in a tub, all twisted branches, no straight, quite moist compost but it seems to be failing. Is the tub to small? It’s about 2ft square and the hazel itself is about three ft square. Any ideas to help me. Tanks so much

    • hortophile says:

      Hi Rebecca, it’s hard for me to say without seeing the plant and the conditions in which it’s growing, but I’ll give it a shot! You say the compost is quite moist – could it be too wet? Your container should have several drainage holes to all ow excess moisture to escape and the soil should be a good quality potting soil, pure compost, garden or topsoil may be too heavy to allow for the air spaces your plant requires at the roots. You should take some leaves into a local garden centre and find someone knowledgeable to take a look at them and be prepared to answer several questions about the plants growing conditions. Good luck!

  7. am i the only person that thinks in the summer months the contorted hazel is ugly i am thinking of getting rid of mine a lovely healthy plant of about 5ft and no straight bits just don’t feel it is nice enough to keep yes in winter and spring looks attractive……………… it me.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. sorry should have read isn’t nice enough to keep.

    • hortophile says:

      Hi Jennifer,
      If you don’t love it then you absolutely should not keep it – there are so many lovely plants that you could replace it with! I would suggest that you not kill it if it’s a healthy plant, give it away to a friend or, who knows, you might even be able to sell it (and make some $ with which you can buy a new plant)!

  9. Deborah says:


    We planted one of these lovely bushes (not yet a tree) a year ago. It is about 3 feet high. The lower part is growing fine, with leaves, but there are two of it’s upper branches which have no leaves at all. It looks to be that they are therefore dead and I am looking at cutting those back to the point where there are leaves growing. Is this the right thing to do? Can I do this now or do I need to wait until the winter before cutting these back? Also, another of the upper part of one of the branches has nothing on it for a bit and then suddenly a few leaves at one point and then again no leaves. Do I cut this back to the few leaves, or even further back to where there is a multitude of leaves?

    Thanks for your help!

    • hortophile says:

      You can cut away anything that is dead now, no need to wait until winter. Scratch the bark where you have dead looking tips, if it’s still green underneath it may still have some life in it. As for the branches that have gaps between leaves, they are live at least as far up as there are green leaves, so don’t cut those off.

      • Deborah says:

        Thanks so much for this info, this is very helpful! I have one other question I forgot to ask. It has branches growing right at ground level (not suckers) and I’ve been reading that to develop this into an actual tree, rather than a bush, I need to cut these off. They are in full leaf right now. On these, can I go ahead and cut these off now, or should I wait until the Fall? Also, how high up should I cut off branches to get it growing up into a tree?

        Thanks, Deborah

      • hortophile says:

        It’s really difficult to tell you exactly how to prune your shrub to give it a tree-like form, but essentially you would need to remove all but one strong, upright stem, which you could do at almost anytime excluding the spring months. I don’t know how well it would work though – the contorted hazels I’ve seen in tree form have all been top grafted onto a trunk of some other type of corylus (one that grows a straight trunk). I think you might have a hard time convincing any corylus contorta to grow a trunk vertical enough to give you the desired effect.

  10. Cory Byrne says:

    I’m so excited! I transplanted the upright growing stems that were coming along with my contorta and it took off like a weed! This year it has filberts – I’ve only spotted 2. I purchased mine in the Pacific NW. Would you have a guess as to the rootstock type? Will the nuts be good? It’s June and they’re nearly mature size now. Any input is welcome.
    My uncle had a filbert orchard in the Portland, Oregon area and I loved visiting his orchard. The fuzzy leaves take me back to that time.
    Thanks, Cory

    • hortophile says:

      I’m glad your contorted filbert is doing so well, Cory. I don’t know what rootstock it it may have, but I regret to tell you that the nuts will probably be empty shells – I’ve never found any nutmeats inside the few shells mine produces each year.

  11. masoncan says:

    We have had a Contorted Filbert as the focus of our small yard for 5 years, and it is doing great!

    We have a handful of smaller shoots coming up near the main trunk that are most definitely contorted. We’d like to try to separate them, but not if it means risk to the main shrub, and only if we have decent chance of growing the shoots. What would you recommend?

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