This is our Hazel called Harry, shown here towards the end of storm Arwen (27th November 2021), but still managing to hang on to lots of its leaves.
Corylus avellana is native to the UK, and is by far the largest living organism within our small garden, probably around 20ft high. It’s not at all closely related to any other species growing in the garden and you would be looking at Class level before you could categorise it with anything else living with us.
The first thing we have to explain is that Harry is also Harriet, in that he is also a she or more scientifically speaking Hazel is monoecious (each tree having both male and female flowering parts). However for the record it is not able to self pollinate.
The male catkins open around February before the tree is in leaf and releases pollen which is carried off by the wind. The receiving female flowers on a nearby tree will, once fertilised, result in the production of hazel nuts, which on our Harry are most often found in pairs or occasionally threes.
By the early autumn the nuts start to fall to the ground, which can be painful if sat beneath the tree on a breezy day and one falls from the very top onto your head. And to prove I never learn, it hurts just as much the second and third time as well.
The photograph below of a nut shows the typically chisel markings of a rodent, in this case we are fairly certain a brown rat.
Now you may be wondering about the above subtitle, ‘corkscrew / native graft’. Well Harry didn’t originally enter our garden as a regular looking hazel. Harry was rescued from a Focus DIY Garden Centre in Devizes around 2005/2006, where it was purchased for 50p as an almost dead Contorted / Corkscrew hazel. Unfortunately we don’t have any images of such a plant but a quick look online and you will see corkscrew hazel is an ornamental form of hazel with, as it turns out, a history very much associated with our part of the world.
The most detailed description of the origins of corkscrew hazel I can find is that provided by;
Bourne, Val. Hartley Magazine, Spring Cottage Ramblings, https://hartley-botanic.co.uk/magazine/a-touch-of-jekyll-and-hyde/ A Touch of Jekyll and Hyde November 2, 2015. Accessed 15/11/2021
Here Bourne explains that a gardener at Frocester Court, Gloucestershire in 1863 (only around 22 miles from our garden), came across a very odd looking hazel within a hedgerow and passed it on to a gardener at the Tortworth Estate (where co-incidentally I spent a good part of this summer (2021) working). Edward Augustus Bowles made the use of this oddity popular within gardens, after he likely received it from Canon Ellacombe of Bitton, a famous local gardener in his own right.
It turns out the more accurate name for this sort of oddity is a ‘Sport’. A sport is a plant or part of a plant exhibiting unusual characteristics due to a genetic mutation. What this means therefore is corkscrew hazel is a perfectly natural form resulting from a naturally occurring mutation. Of course the mutation needs to offer the plant some form of competitive edge to allow the mutation to continue onto future generations. Whether it would have is now a mystery because in this case, like on most occasions, the sport was weaker than the parent plant and has survived only because it has been grafted onto a regular hazel stem, which has allowed the sport to survive.
Indeed our understanding is all contorted / corkscrew hazels are genetically the same as the original sport grown on at Tortworth around 150 years ago. In effect they are the same plant (of course grown on a stem with a different genetic make up).
And so it is with our hazel, because to retain the sport version of the plant, it is important to cut back any growth from the stem section, as this true hazel will out compete the sport, which is what has occurred with Harry. Harry is born from the stem, not from the sport. Although I noted today that the contorted sport still survives after all these years in the shadow of it’s larger half brother/sister, see below.
Oddly enough, contorted hazel is best known to many in the world as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, after the famous Scottish entertainer who used to ‘sport’ a walking stick fashioned from a thick piece of corkscrew hazel.
Our Harry is long overdue a coppicing, which is basically where the plant is cut back to near ground level. This encourages the tree to send up lots of young vigorous regrowth and was traditionally undertaken to allow folk to grow a supply of neat straight poles for various uses. Coppicing is known to significantly increase the life expectancy of the tree, so really it is something we should consider, although it will mean several years with no large tree in the garden. However now may be the best time as the cut wood will allow us to begin to fill up our latest Wildlife Hotel project with lots of logs.
The winter of 2021/22 has been extremely mild, with at the time of writing this (30th January 2022) there have only been a handful of frosts, little significant rain and a fair bit of sunshine. So perhaps it was unsurprising that despite Hazel catkins typically opening in February most years, this year in the garden we first noticed the catkins opening on the 9th January 2022 as shown below…
We were also surprised to learn that Blue Tits will feed from the pollen produced by the catkins. Within a week or so the vast majority of catkins had opened.
We immediately looked for the tiny flowers we knew should be present and after a short search and getting our eye in we found plenty. These flowers, also recorded on the 9th January 2022, are are comprised of only these deep red styles.