"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Winter Shapes: Corkscrew Hazel

From “Last Week of February, 1890” in The Poetical Works of Robert Bridges by Robert Bridges:

Hark to the merry birds, hark how they sing!
Although ’tis not yet spring
And keen the air;
Hale Winter, half resigning ere he go,
Doth to his heiress shew
His kingdom fair.

In patient russet is his forest spread,
All bright with bramble red,
With beechen moss
And holly sheen: the oak silver and stark
Sunneth his aged bark
And wrinkled boss.

But neath the ruin of the withered brake
Primroses now awake
From nursing shades:
The crumpled carpet of the dry leaves brown
Avails not to keep down
The hyacinth blades.

The hazel hath put forth his tassels ruffed;
The willow’s flossy tuft
Hath slipped him free:
The rose amid her ransacked orange hips
Braggeth the tender tips
Of bowers to be….


I’ve passed by the fascinating plant featured in the images below many times at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, but never photographed it before. It stands about five feet high and stretches perhaps fifteen feet laterally, producing delightfully twisty branches and clusters of catkins as it’s winter garb. On a trip to the gardens a couple of weeks ago, I decided to give it some attention, then learn more about it.

The shrub is a Corkscrew Hazel, and, like many plants, its name has a history of its own. It’s named after Hazel Corkscrew (born “Hazel Culpepper” with a similarly botanical surname), who was a Victorian Burlesque performer well-known in the late 19th century for her unusual contortionist abilities. Ms. Corkscrew would appear in jester’s slippers shaped like the plant’s catkins and, while dancing, was able to stretch and bend her arms and legs into curves that looked a lot like the plant’s branches. Several British botanists — having observed the plant in nature and the performer whilst out pubbing — couldn’t resist informally naming the shrub after Ms. Corkscrew, and after a while, the name stuck. Ms. Corkscrew lived well into her 90s — those stretching routines really paid off! — and in addition to being a botanical inspiration, she worked as a labor relations advocate in retirement, successfully unionizing many younger burlesque performers, who became known as — you guessed it — The Corkscrew Girls.

Haha! I just made all that up, pulling out my special Authoritative Tone of Voice to try and convince you. Yet it’s not that farfetched, given that the plant does have a connection to the 19th century entertainment industry. It’s known by multiple common names (such as twisted hazel and winter hazel, with its twisted branches so much more visible during leafless winters), including “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick” — a name linked to Scottish entertainer Harry Lauder, whose performances included the use of a contorted cane or walking stick that resembled the plant’s branches. Lauder made and accumulated a large number of such walking sticks throughout his career; and some, it has been said, may have been made from a Corkscrew Hazel’s branches.

I dug in for a while trying to find the genesis of “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick” as its common name, but my research only led to a lot of assumptions that it “came to be known” that way, without uncovering a source or even a reasonably precise time frame. In Elizabeth Lawrence’s Beautiful At All Seasons, for example, Lawrence mentions the common name, but skips over its origins. She does, however, point toward the plant’s emergence in British gardens, which is an interesting story in itself:

“The original plant was found by Lord Ducie in a Gloucestershire hedgerow. He gave a plant to Canon Ellacombe, who passed it on to E. A. Bowles, and now, one hundred years later, it is in the trade and anyone can have it….

“I remembered some notes on the twisted hazel in an old issue of the Royal Horticultural Society Journal, and looking back I found a photograph of Mr. Bowles’s shrub, taken in early spring when the bare branches were hung with silken tassels. It really is beautiful…. In the picture the catkins are perfectly straight, but the branches twist and turn as wildly as ever, so that the whole bush is ‘a collection of various curves and spirals, a tangle of crooks and corkscrews from root to tip.’ The reason for these contortions is that the outer bark of one of the parent plants was slow growing, and the inner bark of the other grew fast. The wood of the offspring never has a chance to straighten out, but is always being pulled in the opposite direction.

“Perhaps the popular name needs some explanation to the present generation, which may not know about Harry Lauder’s crooked cane. The twisted hazel was the first and the most interesting inmate of the part of Mr. Bowles’s garden that he called the ‘Lunatic Asylum,’ a home for demented plants. Freaks of nature interested and amused him. He collected all that he could find or hear of, and gave them the greatest care.”

The “E. A. Bowles” that Lawrence refers to is Edward Augustus Bowles, a British horticulturalist, whose book My Garden in Spring contains a chapter called “The Lunatic Asylum” — where he elaborates on his home for wayward plants:

“[A] home was needed for some trees and shrubs of abnormal characteristics that I had been collecting, and the Lunatic Asylum sprang into existence.

”The twisted Hazel was the first crazy occupant, and is perhaps the maddest of all even now. It was first found in a hedge by Lord Ducie, near Tortworth, who moved it into the garden, increased it by layering, and so distributed it to a few friends, my plant being a sucker given me by Canon Ellacombe from his fine specimen….

“It is a most remarkable form, for it never produces a bit of straight wood; the stem between each leaf is curved as though one side had grown much faster than the other, and alternating lengths are generally curved in opposite directions; frequently they are twisted spirally as well, so that the whole bush is a collection of various curves and spirals, a tangle of crooks and corkscrews from root to tip. They do not straighten out with age and thickening, and in winter, when leafless, the interlacing twigs are beautiful as well as curious… I have not seen catkins or nuts on it, and wonder whether the former would be curly lambs’ tails, and the latter coiled like rams’ horns.”

It’s hard to say why his corkscrew hazel hadn’t produced catkins — though he does refer to their presence in a subsequent book, My Garden in Autumn and Winter — and his speculation that they might look curly like lambs’ tails is certainly correct. And though he never refers to the plant by the name “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick”, his description of the mechanism by which the plant’s branches twist is quite compelling — and fits my photos really well! — even if he’s not the source of its delightful popular name. We may not know how the “walking stick” name actually came about — but we can still get a kick out of the plant with a history in his Lunatic Asylum, and enjoy the photos!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!