February plant of the month

With its gnarled silhouette, the corkscrew hazel is a wonderful addition to winter planting and is much loved by flower arrangers

contorted hazelCorylus, or hazel, as the genus is more commonly known, is a group of 10–15 species of deciduous trees and shrubs. The contorted version of the hazel is a cultivar of the common hazel, Corylus avellana, and is commonly known as the corkscrew hazel, or Harry Lauder's Walking Stick after the popular Scots entertainer.

It is a relatively slow-growing shrub, reaching around 5m high and 5m wide over a number of years. It has broad, heart-shaped, toothed, coarse leaves about 10cm long. It can be a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ plant with its summer foliage a tangle of green leaves and its winter finery of beautifully twisted stems.

The corkscrew hazel looks best on a clear winter’s day when the sun is low and the sky pale - a perfect backdrop for the dark and tortuously twisted branches. Plump catkins emerge slowly in late winter and gradually unfurl into long wavy tassels, 4–6cm long. When it’s windy, the pollen is dispersed from the male catkins to the small, red, female flowers below.
 
Corylus is easy to grow and prefers fertile, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Hazels are very tolerant of chalky soils and grow well on the Downlands. As the corkscrew hazel is slow growing it can be used in smaller gardens or even in very large containers where it will add great structure during the winter months. It requires very little maintenance since it forms its wonderful twisted structure naturally. At RHS Garden Hyde Hall from time to time we remove the epicormic growth – the straight stems that emerge from the base of the plant and rise directly through its crown.
 
A mature example of the corkscrew hazel grows in the Hilltop Garden near the Upper Pond. This wonderful specimen is several years old and has beautiful gnarled stems at its base. Consider underplanting around the base of a large corkscrew hazel with early winter-flowering bulbs such as snowdrops, aconites or crocuses. Groundcover plants such as Bergenia, which have great leaf colour during winter, or Ophiopogon with its black leaves, contrast well with the yellow catkins. Spring- or summer-flowering perennials such as Geranium or Euphorbia also make good companions.

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