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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.