Corkscrew Hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’). Photo: crocus.co.uk
For Halloween, you may be interested in discovering some trees and shrubs that, by their grotesque shapes, have associations with the world of ghosts and ghouls.
Corkscrew Hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)
This bizarre shrub is a mutation of the common hazel, the one that produces edible hazelnuts. However, the corkscrew hazel is pretty much sterile and almost never produces nuts. Instead, it’s grown for its oddly twisted stems that create a sinister effect in the landscape.
The effect is not so obvious in the summer, when the plant is covered with green leaves (themselves irregularly twisted), but when they drop off in the fall, its very odd appearance is clearly revealed.
Corkscrew hazel is adapted to temperate climates (hardiness zone 4b to 8) and grows under “average garden conditions,” either in sun or in partial shade in well-drained soil of almost any type. It can reach 6 feet (2 m) in height and as much width, but since its stems twist and bend rather than grow normally, its growth is very slow.
Weeping Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’)
Grafted on a straight trunk, this weeping tree produces branches that first grow mostly horizontally and then bend down, weeping to the ground. As a young tree, it’s quite symmetrical and not scary at all, but as it gets older, after 20 years and more, its form becomes more and more irregular, twisted and ghostly. Its big, thick branches become lumpy and contorted and the overall effect of a leafless weeping elm is … well, creepy! There was a large specimen growing in a cemetery near where I used to live and the local children were terrified of it, calling it the hangman’s tree, although I’m sure it was never used for any hangings!
A weeping elm can reach up to 20 feet (6 m) in height and 25 feet (8 m) in diameter, but only after several decades. Before you purchase one, ask which species of elm has been used as a rootstock, because in recent years, nurseries have started grafting it onto Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila), resulting in short-lived trees rarely survive more than 10 to 20 years. Instead, look for specimens grafted onto U. glabra or U. × hollandica: they can live for 100 years or more.
Plant your weeping elm in sun or, at the limit, partial shade in rather rich, well-drained soil. Zones 4b to 7.
Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)
This curious small tree or large shrub produces very straight, canelike trunks covered in really nasty thorns, hence its common name, for surely only the devil himself could use a such a cane! The effect is most visible in fall and winter; once the leaves have fallen, only tall, upright, spiny stems are seen, most with no branches at all. It suckers abundantly, forming colonies of many stems and bears in the summer huge bipinnate leaves with numerous leaflets: sometimes they’re over 3 feet (1 m) long! And the leaves are also spiny.
Devil’s walking stick blooms very attractively from mid-summer to mid-autumn, producing panicles of creamy white flowers. As the fall progresses, black fruits gradually replace the flowers.
Expect your specimen to attain anything from 6 to 12 feet (2 to 4 m) in height (under exceptional circumstances, it can reach 25 feet [7.5 m]). The colony will continue to expand throughout the life of the tree, but you can keep it in check by removing wayward suckers. Expect a colony of about 6 to 10 feet (2 or 3 m) in diameter if you keep it in check. Devil’s walking stick prefers sun or partial shade. Any well-drained soil, even the poorest, will suit it. Hardiness zones: 4b to 9.
So, prepare decades worth of nightmarish Halloweens by planting these scary-looking trees and shrubs on your property: the kids in the area will be impressed … and terrified!