Plant taxonomy classifies Harry Lauder's walking stick as Corylus avellana 'Contorta.' The latter is the cultivar name. The species plant is native to Europe. C. avellana is in the birch family, making it a relative of birch trees.
Technically, Harry Lauder's walking stick may be classified as a deciduous flowering shrub, produced by grafting. But because the rootstock in the graft provides a 4-foot-high trunk, this multi-stemmed bush is commonly referred to as a dwarf tree. According to Adele Kleine of "Flower and Garden Magazine," the shrub's "appealing common name derives from the old Scottish comedian Harry Lauder who performed using a crooked branch as a cane."
Traits of Harry Lauder's Walking Stick
This shrub reaches approximately 10 feet tall, but it is slow to reach its mature height. Its spread can be as much as half again its height. The showy flowers of Harry Lauder's walking stick are yellowish-brown male "catkins," a term that you are probably more used to hearing in association with pussy willows. The plant is monoecious; the female blooms are not showy. The blooms appear in early to middle spring. However, this shrub is not grown primarily for its blooms but for its unusual branching pattern, which is indicated by its other common names: corkscrew filbert and contorted hazelnut. For its branches contort themselves in every which way, resembling corkscrews. The equivalent in the perennial world would be the corkscrew rush plant.
The catkins are small and drab in winter, but, in spring, they will lengthen (to 2 or 3 inches long) and take on a yellow color. Winter and spring are the best seasons for this shrub. The leaves of summer follow the branches' lead and curl up. While it is unusual for healthy leaves to curl up, this foliage is not really very pretty. In fact, many gardeners feel that it serves only to hide the much more interesting branching pattern. This plant offers no fall-foliage color of note.
Sun and Soil Needs, Planting Zones, Care
Grow Harry Lauder's walking stick in well-drained soil, in full sun to part shade. Its water needs are average.
The climate is most favorable for growing Harry Lauder's walking stick in USDA planting zones 4 to 8.
Being a grafted shrub, Harry Lauder's walking stick does require some special care. The rootstock is Corylus colurna (the Turkish filbert). As often happens with grafted plants, there is a tendency for suckers to shoot up from the rootstock. You must prune off these suckers so that they do not take over. If the suckers were to be allowed to take over, the plant would eventually revert to the qualities of its rootstock, meaning that you would lose the much-valued curlicue look for which you bought the plant. In a worst-case scenario, the shrub may even spread by suckering, creating numerous unattractive plants that you would then have to take the trouble to remove.
Fertilize this bush with compost. Scale insects and Japanese beetles can attack the plant. To control the scale, spray with organic Neem oil at the first sign of their presence. Japanese beetles are easily picked off by hand and drowned in a can of soapy water.
Uses in Landscaping, the Nuts, Other Filberts
Harry Lauder's walking stick is a specimen plant. The corkscrew shape of its branches lends much-needed visual interest to the winter landscape. This cultivar rarely produces nuts. If it is nuts that you are looking for, you want the species plant, Corylus avellana, commonly called the European hazelnut tree or European filbert tree. There is also an American version that bears edible nuts: Corylus americana. The American filbert is common in the woods of the northeastern United States; hikers often enjoy the sweet taste of the raw nuts. If you are more interested in ornamental value than in edible nuts, consider growing the following two kinds of filbert:
- C. avellana 'Aurea,' which has golden leaves.
- C. maxima 'Purpurea,' which has purple foliage.
Best Feature, Winter Interest
Harry Lauder's walking stick is a case in which one may rightly claim that a deciduous shrub truly comes into its own only after its leaves have fallen. Not that the shrub is not attractive when fully leafed out. But the eye is especially drawn to the branching pattern of this curious plant in winter when many other deciduous trees and shrubs are little better than sad reminders of the past fall and summer. This shrub also offers visual interest in early spring to mid-spring, when it displays its wonderful catkins.
But its curlicue branches are clearly the best feature of this shrub. In fact, they are so unusual and so striking that it is fair to call Harry Lauder's walking stick one of the best landscaping plants most people don't know about.