Corkscrew willow and Corkscrew hazelnut have striking winter interest

Many plants have unique features that are displayed during the growing season. Some have unusual foliage. Some have unique flowers. Incorporating plants with attractive winter features can be a challenge.

Two common plants are corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana) and corkscrew hazelnut (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta), the latter often referred to as Harry Lauder’s walking stick. Both have gnarly branches that are far more showy in winter than in summer, but they still have plenty of summer interest.

Corkscrew willow, sometimes called curly willow is a large shrub to small tree. It has typical willow-like foliage and it is a fast grower. It is also one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring. Like most willows, it tolerates wet soils very well. It also can be a problem when planted too close to foundations and septic systems. Willows are also relatively short-lived.

Willows like sunny locations and this one is no exception. When taller trees begin to shade them, they lose vigor quickly. In a few years, they begin to die out. To keep this from happening they should not be planted directly north of taller shade trees. They also benefit from frequent pruning. Occasional severe pruning will usually prolong their lifespans.

Harry Lauder walking sticks have similar growth habits but are slower growing and better suited to drier soils. They also are shrubs and not trees. Plants rarely grow taller than 10-15 feet. Foliage appears later in spring, but prior to that, the attractive male catkins make their appearance.

Female flowers are present as well, but the male ones are far showier. Flowers are present throughout winter, but when they open in spring their yellow color can be breathtaking. These corkscrew hazelnuts have edible nuts, but often plants don’t fruit heavily.

Pruning corkscrew hazelnuts can be more complicated than pruning willows. Plants tend to become thick and they often accumulate dead wood. This must be removed to preserve plant health and attractive form. Usually, these shrubs sucker at the base and this detracts from the overall beauty and vigor.

Both these species are commonly used in floral arrangements. They add texture and character to make ordinary floral pieces stand out.

When it comes to propagation these two plants show a stark contrast. The hazelnuts are relatively difficult to root from cuttings and the willows are a cinch. Curly willow cuttings will root in any wet spot. I’ve had the most luck with dormant cuttings in late winter.

Neither curly willow nor Harry Lauder’s walking stick has many problems with insects or diseases. All willows are prone to foliar feeders like aphids, lace bugs, caterpillars and beetles. They are relatively easy to control with systemic insecticides.

Hazelnuts have few insect disease problems, but there is a fungal disease that can be a problem. I have no experience with it, but it attacks walking sticks and is called Eastern Filbert Blight. This is a systemic ascomycete fungus disease that enters the plant during wet weather and cankers begin to form the following year. Once they appear plants usually never recover.

Curly willow branches

Harry Lauder’s walking stick

Harry Lauder’s walking stick showing a close-up of the gnarly branches

Harry Lauder’s walking stick showing a close-up of male catkins


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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10 Responses to Corkscrew willow and Corkscrew hazelnut have striking winter interest

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Almost all of the corkscrew willows that I know of were once cut stems in a mixed bouquet. People planted them after discovering that they rooted into the water that the cut flowers were in. Consequently, many were planted into situations that they should not have been planted into, much like the small living Christmas trees that get too big within only a few years. I have never seen them in nurseries, but they are very easy to root from cutting, and they grow like weeds.

    • tedmanzer says:

      They are great for sunny wet places, but they don’t live that long. Renewal pruning is a must if you want to keep them for a long time.

      • tonytomeo says:

        They are easily replaced by their own cuttings. I do not like them enough to keep them around too long. I only worked with them where someone else planted them. I suppose I should plant one at work before the last few succumb. I just do not want to take care of it.

      • tedmanzer says:

        My wife and I teach horticulture and do a lot of floral stuff, so it’s nice to have around somewhere close.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Do you find that coppicing or pollarding them makes them less curly? I happen to like coppicing and pollarding some times of plants, particularly those that are grown for juvenile or vigorous growth. However, for the curly willow, I prune it aggressively to keep it contained, but without pollarding it. The concern is that the vigorous new shoots would straighter.

      • tedmanzer says:

        I agree. The one in the picture was maintained as a tree and pollard pruned. It doesn’t have as much twisting as the ones I have at home that I routinely prune to the ground and maintain them multi-stemmed.

      • tonytomeo says:

        So, if you cut them to the ground, that is the same as coppicing, and should have the same effect as pollarding. When you say that you cut them to the ground, does that must mean that you cut only the older stems, as in ‘alternting canes’?

      • tedmanzer says:

        I usually truly coppice them and cut them all to the ground when they begin to look ratty. Occasionally I thin them out if I just need some for floral work. I don’t normally pollard a lot of things. It reminds me too much of what people do to crape myrtles.

      • tonytomeo says:

        I would prefer more crepe myrtles to be pollarded properly. The so-called ‘gardeners’ just chop at them and leave them looking so bad. Even crepe myrtles that have knuckles from former pollarding are left with thickets of grungy stubs. It amazes me that they can leave them SO ugly.

      • tedmanzer says:

        100% agree. They are crape murderers.

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