How to Grow Corkscrew Hazel for Winter Interest

Updated on January 4, 2020
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


When planning your landscape, don’t just consider how it will look in the spring, summer and fall. There are plants that can add interest to the winter season either through color or shape. The corkscrew hazel offers both. In the winter, its contorted branches lend pattern to your landscape, and then in the late winter and early spring, the long yellow catkins of the male flowers add a punch of color.

What Is Corkscrew Hazel?

Corkscrew hazel is a sport of the hazel tree. A “sport” is a plant or a part of a plant that looks completely different from the parent plant. The difference in appearance is the result of genetic mutation. Very often sports are sterile so if gardeners want to propagate them, they must do so with cuttings or suckers that sprout from the bottoms of the plants. Sports tend not to be as hardy as their parents so they are usually grafted onto parent root stock. The sturdy roots can help keep the sport plants healthy.

The corkscrew hazel was discovered in an English hedgerow in the mid-1800s by Canon Ellacombe, a Victorian era gardener. It acquired the nickname “Harold Lauder’s Walking Stick” in the early 20th century. Harold Lauder was a popular Scottish entertainer who used branches from a corkscrew hazel as walking sticks. The nickname is still in use today. You will see it in plant catalogs and on nursery plant labels.

The yellow catkins add color to your late winter/early spring landscape
The yellow catkins add color to your late winter/early spring landscape | Source

The corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') is a large multi-stemmed shrub that grows between 8 and 10 feet tall and equally wide. It is hardy in zones 4 through 8. Its characteristic feature are the branches which grow twisted instead of straight, sometimes even growing in spirals. The contorted branches are not easily seen during the growing season when they are hidden by the foliage but in the fall and winter, when the leaves have been shed, the branches take center stage providing winter interest in the landscape.

Male Catkin Flowers
Male Catkin Flowers | Source

Almost as spectacular are the flowers. Bloomtime is late winter and early spring. Each plant bears both male and female flowers. It is the male flowers that command attention. They are in the form of catkins. Catkins are long spikes of flowers that instead of growing upwards on a stiff stem, grow downwards on a soft, flexible stem. They move in the wind which blows the pollen onto the female flowers. The female flowers are red and much smaller.

Female Flowers
Female Flowers | Source

How to Grow Corkscrew Hazel

Corkscrew hazel grows best in full sun but will tolerate some shade. They need well-drained soil. Newly planted shrubs should be watered regularly for the first two years as they become established. After that, no extra water is required except during periods of prolonged drought. They should be fertilized twice a year using a 16-8-8 fertilizer. The first dose should be applied in March as the growing season commences with a second and final dose in June. Use four ounces of fertilizer per one inch of the plant’s height.

How to Prune Corkscrew Hazel

Corkscrew hazels don’t require a lot of pruning. You should always remove any dead or diseased branches. Because most of the shrubs offered for sale are grafted, you should also prune away any suckers that emerge from the base of the plants. They will not “corkscrew” and may choke out the desirable branches if left on the plants.

How to Propagate Corkscrew Hazel Using Layering

Propagation is usually done by grafting but you can also try layering or soft wood cuttings. Layering is when you bend a branch of the shrub to the ground so that at least several inches of the branch is in contact with the soil. Often gardeners will remove some of the bark of the branch and apply rooting hormone to hurry the process of root formation along. After the branch is bent to the ground, it is anchored to the ground using a garden staple or even part of a metal coat hanger. I use the same pins that I use to hold down my floating row covers. This part is then covered with soil. It is important that the end of the branch with a few leaves is left uncovered to provide food through photosynthesis to the developing roots. When the roots have developed, the branch is severed from the parent and transplanted to its permanent home.

How to Propagate Corkscrew Hazel Using Softwood Cuttings

Softwood cuttings are taken in the spring when the plants are actively growing and producing new, soft branches. Cuttings should be taken from a new branch and include the growing tip. The cut end of the cutting is usually dipped in rooting hormone to encourage root growth and then the cutting is inserted in soil up to half its length. For instance, a four inch cutting would be inserted two inches deep. You will know that roots have developed when the upper part of the cutting starts growing new leaves. A light tug on the plant will tell you if the roots are there or not. If there is resistance when you tug, the cutting has roots. If, instead, the cutting easily moves, no roots have grown yet.

Corkscrew hazel can be grown as a single specimen plant in your yard or as a hedge. Its contorted branches and bright catkins lend interest to your yard during the drab winter season.

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© 2017 Caren White


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