Nestled among the conifers in our front garden is a small tree that doesn't seem to belong.
Unlike the conifers, it doesn't retain its leaves through the winter and instead of lush branches covering the trunk from the ground to the treetops, there is a straight, bare trunk with what seems like an umbrella of strange, twisted branches at the top. In the past few years, those branches have gotten longer and even more twisted in their attempt to bend down to the ground.
The tree is Corylus avellana 'contorta' or Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. It also is known as contorted filbert or corkscrew hazel. The genus Corylus is where we find the American hazel and common hazelnut trees. All are members of the family, Betulacea, the birch family of trees, but some botanists list the hazels within a sub-family they call Corylaceae.
I call my tree, ''Harry.''
The moment I heard about this strangely shaped shrub, I wanted one for my garden. As its cultivar name implies, the branches are twisted and curled and although they aren't as visible in summer when the plant is fully engulfed in leaves, even the leaves are wrinkled and bent.
In Mill Creek Park Fellows Riverside Gardens, the contorted filberts are shrubs that line an entrance into the garden proper, but in my garden Harry is a tree. He likely started as a shrub, but was grafted while very young, onto a straight root stalk that is about five feet tall. As a result, sometimes straight shoots grow out of the trunk that have to be pruned away. Not all contorted filberts are grafted, however, although those that grow from their own roots are often more expensive to buy.
The shrub - or tree - earned the name Harry Lauder's Walking Stick from an old Scottish comedian and entertainer. Lauder was known for using a crooked, wooden cane as a prop in his act. He was popular for his ballads, particularly one titled, ''Roamin in the Gloamin,'' which is mistaken for a Scottish folk song, and in his comedy act, he told jokes and made fun of himself. He was knighted by King George V and came to America after the first World War where he toured with his comedy routine and later appeared in a few films in the 1930s. Not many people remember him now.
It wasn't just the contorted nature of the filbert that attracted me. It also was the story behind how this once strange, but now quite common, shrub got its name. I love plants with a story. It makes the garden so much more interesting. But even without the story, contorted filbert is an interesting plant to grow, whether you prefer yours as a tree standard or as a wild shrub.
The leaves burst out a little later in spring than most others. They are large, dark green and twisted. As the leaves grow larger, they fill out and hide the branches. In the fall, while they aren't as attractive as other leaves on deciduous trees, they turn yellow and then brown before fallin. In keeping with their reputation for being late, they are some of the last to drop. I've had leaves on my tree as late as Thanksgiving, but by Christmas they are usually gone. What is left dangling among the curly branches are yellowish-green catkins that hang down in clusters, adding yet more interest to this shrub.
By late winter, the catkins have grown longer and have begun to swell into a golden brown fuzz. At the top of the catkin is sometimes a dark, purple blossom. While 'contorta' isn't known to produce nuts, if the flower does get pollinated, it can produce an edible filbert. I've never had them on my tree.
Other than pruning off the straight shoots to keep my filbert growing the way I want, I don't do a lot of pruning. Sometimes I'll take off a branch if it is leaning a bit too far or criss-crossing another in a bullying way. Some people bring in branches from their shrubs to add to indoor arrangements, but I do that with the corkscrew willows out back and leave the filbert alone.
The only pest problems I've had with the filbert are Japanese beetles and webworms. I hand-pick the Japanese beetles, preferring a manual control over chemicals, and a few good sprays with a hose usually gets rid of the webworms.