Corylus avellana 'Contorta'

Harry Lauder's walkingstick

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick Winter Garden Sculpture from a Choice Contortionist By Kim E. Tripp The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) There just is no escaping it - eventually, at some level or another, all gardeners succumb to the quest for the rare and unusual. This yen, not unique to plant people, may manifest as the drive to find and rescue the rarest of native populations of a tiny fern, with only five remaining plants, that grow in only one spot on the entire planet (currently endangered, of course, by planned construction of a trans-global shopping mall); or it may develop as an insatiable hunger for at least one cutting of that dwarf, contorted, pink and gold variegated, cut-leaved, sterile, chartreuse-flowered form of a hitherto-believed-to-be-extinct, broadleaved evergreen shrub rumored to now exist only in the extremely remote Atlantis Botanic Garden (a garden known only to a few, seriously intrepid collectors). Whatever form this yearning for the unusual takes, even the most blase of horticulturists eventually find themselves searching for choice plants of one form or another. But plantsmen do not have to go to the ends of the earth, or brave the wrath of rabid bulldozer drivers to obtain choice plants. While it is true that finding the rarest of the rare requires concerted efforts on many fronts, there are many choice plants that are relatively available through quality and specialty nurseries and garden centers. Such plants bring wonderful character to the garden without sacrificing one's entire youth and fortune to a lifelong obsession (but I bet you can't stop at just one....).

One magnificent plant that has long been a traditional source of choice garden character is Corylus avellana 'Contorta', Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. This is a contorted form of the commercial European Filbert nut tree, Corylus avellana, that is grown and highly valued for its delicious fruit. Corylus avellana is native to Europe and parts of Asia and northern Africa. The species is a small tree or large, woody, multi-stemmed, thicket forming shrub with rather coarse, hairy, deciduous, dark green foliage about 3-4 inches long and almost as wide. The flowers of this species are tiny, with the male flowers borne on long, narrow catkins, and female flowers in shorter, thicker catkins, similar to those of its close relatives the Birches, Betula spp., and Alders, Alnus spp.. The catkins of male flowers are yellow and put on a handsome show in late winter before the leaves emerge. The female flowers are much more subtle and require closer inspection to see the delicate, but amazingly carmine-colored floral parts emerging from the buds.

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick is much like its parent species with one important exception. The branching of this form is twisted into striking, spiral contortions throughout the entire plant. It is a spectacular addition to the winter garden when the sculptural patterns created by the branches can be clearly seen. Harry Lauder's Walking Stick is at its peak in late winter when the catkins of yellow male flowers dangle from the twisted branches like strange candles suspended from a fantastic, mahogany candleabra. This fascinating plant is interesting in summer as well as winter because the leaves are also somewhat contorted.

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick was discovered in a hedgerow in England in the mid-1800's and propagated for its unique habit (it does not bear fruit). It flowers somewhat later than the species, in late winter in the southeastern US. It will reach 10 feet with some age but is a relatively slow grower which makes it an excellent specimen plant for small gardens. It is completely hardy throughout the southeastern and mid-atlantic states from the coast to the mountains. Harry Lauder's Walking Stick will perform well in a range of soils in full sun or with a little shade. It is propagated by grafting scion wood of the cultivar onto rootstock of the species. The species understock does best in deep, loamy soils but will also perform well in clay soils. The understock tends to sucker and the suckers must be continually removed to avoid overgrowth of the cultivar.

There are a few other unusual cultivars of Corylus avellana including 'Aurea', with rather fleetingly yellow foliage, 'Fusco-rubra' with beautiful, burgundy-purple foliage that re-greens in the heat of the south, 'Heterophylla', with lobed leaves, and 'Pendula' which is a weeping form.

In addition there are four other species of Corylus (without contorted branching) that you may encounter in your search for Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. C. americana is the native American Filbert which is larger than Harry Lauder, to 15 feet, with equally attractive flowers to Harry Lauder's that do mature into fruits which are beloved by squirrels. American Filbert is a good choice for naturalizing in parks and other larger spaces. C. cornuta, the Beaked Filbert, is another north American native that is smaller than the previously listed Corylus, reaching 6-8 feet. Beaked Filbert has more refined branching and foliage, and unique fruits which develop elongated husks that resemble little beaks. C. colurna, Turkish Filbert, is a large tree, to 50 feet, with handsome character, and, once established, is an excellent, tough, landscape tree. Turkish Filbert needs very regular water its first few seasons but thenceforward will thrive under extremes of heat and cold in demanding sites - it deserves more attention as an urban tree.

C. maxima var. purpurea, Purple Giant Filbert, is a purple foliaged form that is much like C. avellana but new foliage emerges a deep violet burgundy and the catkins are also tinged with burgundy. The foliage re-greens with the first warm weather but it is a rich color form for the spring garden. Purple Giant Filbert is very similar to the previously described C. avellana 'Fusco-rubra'.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta', Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, is an attainably impeccable beginning in the search for choice, unusual plants for the garden. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), this intriguing plant beguiles visitors at the entrance arbor where it is a harbinger of the exciting collections of choice and even more rare plants to be found in the gardens inside. By planting Harry Lauder's Walking Stick yourself, you could also make it the harbinger of choice plants to come in your own garden (and you don't have to find that dwarf, contorted, pink and gold variegated, cut-leaf, sterile, chartreuse flowered....)