Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
January, 2011
Regional Report

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Harry Lauder's walking stick is a twisted delight in the winter landscape.

Walking in the Winter with Harry

Are you ready to take a winter's stroll with Harry? "Harry who?" you well may ask. The fellow I have in mind is actually not available for a walk, but his name has become inextricably linked to one of the most interesting plants in the winter landscape.

The plant I refer to is Corylus avellana 'Contorta,' a member of the Filbert or Hazelnut family, with the common name of Harry Lauder's walking stick. This deciduous shrub grows to about 8 to 10 feet high and wide (though it can be kept smaller with judicious pruning), and in summer is covered with rather nondescript green leaves that are a favorite snack of the Japanese beetle. Since it's not a shining star of the summer garden, why has this plant become popular?

Once its leaves fall in autumn, the true worth of this shrub becomes evident. Its bare stems are twisted and contorted into fantastic shapes and squiggles. Stripped of its tattered leaves, Harry Lauder's walking stick is revealed as a eye-catching piece of garden sculpture. Against a blanket of snow, its weirdly bent branches make a stunning focal point in an otherwise bleak landscape. For added interest, large, yellowish, dangling male catkins emerge in early spring to adorn the still bare branches.

Placing this shrub well in the garden does require some creativity. You want a spot where it's noticeable in winter, ideally on view from a window, yet somewhere where it can blend in with other plantings during its ugly-duckling summer phase. You might try planting it where it's concealed in summer by a large herbaceous plant such as baptisia or Joe-Pye-weed that will conveniently die down in winter to let Harry take center stage. It's also important to remember that this shrub is almost always grafted on to the species rootstock, so you need to cut away any suckers that pop up to maintain the twisted top growth.

Choose a site in full sun. Plants need well-drained soil but are adaptable to a wide pH range. If deer are a problem in your garden, you'll be glad to know that that they tend to leave this hazel alone.

And finally, just who is Harry Lauder? Turns out he was an early twentieth-century Scottish music hall comedian and singer who used a twisty, gnarled walking stick as part of his routine. Who would have guessed that his name would be memorialized by a strange-looking plant that spices up the winter landscape!

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