• December 7, 2016

Big finale for nature’s contortionist

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Posted: Saturday, April 5, 2014 4:30 am

When the sap falls in the autumn — yes, I know it’s spring, but bear with me — a few shrubs and trees become prettier.

The cold and the dormancy cause their bark to glow more intensely than in the growing season. The obvious example is the coral bark maple, which drops its leaves to reveal stems that take on a positive pink-scarlet luminescence.

Certain willow shrubs also light up, as do yellow- and red-twigged dogwoods, as long as the gardener removes the oldest stems each spring to encourage rejuvenation. The brightest bark is on stems that are a year or two old.

Contorted Hazel

These plants simply fade away in April, becoming more pallid as the garden around them bursts into life and color. But one of these winter beauties goes out with a bang. That would be the contorted hazel, which is not a circus act but an Old World tree. From its sculptural tangle of spiraled branches, catkins evolve from wan, gray-green stubs to long, silken tassels — three to a cluster, each about five inches long or more, and turn a golden yellow hue as they open.

The twisted branches, which are silver-gray and mahogany-brown, are the perfect foil for the catkins, which may number well into the hundreds on a mature plant. When the spring breezes blow, the catkins dance in unison.

This is a shrub that is not pruned back each year, but shaped in youth by removing some of its stems to create a more open and architectural plant. On grafted plants, you have to make sure suckers are removed as they appear. It grows large, to 10 feet or so, but only after many years, so that a big specimen speaks to the steadfastness of the gardener.

One of the biggest challenges with the contorted hazel is its placement. It’s a northern plant that requires some shade in a hotter climate, and it needs some space to spread — 12 feet or more, which means a trunk at least 6 feet from any wall or fence. The primary consideration in its location, however, is the fact that the contorted hazel is as ugly in summer as it is beautiful from November to April.

The same gyrations that make the stems so interesting wrinkle the leaves as well, so they appear to be afflicted in some fashion. Their fall color is blah. So you want the contorted hazel to jump out when not in leaf but to hide itself the rest of the year. This is not always easy. You could place the hazel in a broad shrub border between two successive bloomers, say, a corylopsis and a deciduous azalea, which would take your eye off the emerging hazel horror. (Perhaps I am overstating its ugliness.)

The contorted hazel is a variant of the common English hazel, used widely in its homeland for its filbert nuts, for the utility of its stems for fencing and as a plant in the great tapestry of the English hedgerows that line country roads.

The twisted version is reputed to have been found as a mutant in a hedgerow in the Cotswolds in the 1860s. Every plant since traces its ancestry to that one find.

Its botanical name is Corylus avellana Contorta. Its common name came to be Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, though who today remembers the Scottish vaudevillian or his corkscrew walking cane?

Needs some coddling

The contorted hazel can suffer a deadly blight disease, and some nurseries have stopped selling it as a result. It does need a little coddling in warmer climates: rich, moist soil, a deep soaking in periods of drought and, most of all, a location where it will get that afternoon shade.

When an Asian maple gave up the ghost last year in my garden, a nurseryman friend suggested I replace it with a contorted hazel. He had a big specimen at a knockdown price. Who could resist, even if hauling it would be a challenge?

I arrived in my empty pickup truck undaunted. I always seem to summon great strength (or great assistance) when I just have to have a certain tree or shrub. But the hazel was a beast, with a rootball that weighed more than 500 pounds. My chum could use a machine to load it on the truck, but the problems would start at the other end. Even with a commercial ball cart, access to its intended location was nigh impossible. I came away with another hazel, a witch hazel, in a five-gallon pot. For all its cons, I remain a fan of this plant and love to see it now in full sail, especially with rich purple crocuses at its feet. The aerial dance of the catkins is the surest sign that a long winter is over, at last.

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