Saturday, 26 October 2013

Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana 'Contorta')

DOGS, with The Mighty Leader trailblazing and losing half his command

      I regularly go walking with a group of blokes. We call ourselves The Dogs. People think this refers to Dogs of War, but it's actually an acronym  for 'Doddering Old Gits'. At full strength there are five of us and I'm going to change names to preserve our friendship:

      Harry is also known as the Mighty Leader and his job, as he sees it, is to use the map to get us lost in as many creative ways as possible. His political views make Hitler look like a Sunday school teacher and he runs the group like a military operation. On one occasion, on a road at the beginning of an extremely steep hill, we were equally extremely lost. At this point, an old man on an even older bicycle wavered past.

      "Oy", shouted our mighty leader, causing the man to wobble precariously before doing a u-turn to face us belligerently, possibly under the impression he was about to be mugged. "Excuse me", continued our navigator, in a less threatening tone, "could you tell us where we are, please?" There followed a long explanation, to the accompaniment of much arm waving and head scratching, which lead to the understanding that, by some miracle, we were going in the right direction. The rest of us had backed away a few yards in order to give the negotiators some space and the man kept glancing nervously at us. This was understandable because Fred's hair was standing on end as the result of him tearing it out in frustration at the wrong turns, creating a wild man look. In addition, my hat was pulled down to my eyebrows in a vain attempt at disguise so that people looking through their windows didn't recognise us as we passed for the fourth time. However, I suspect it just made me look sinister. Anyway, at the end of the discussion, the man did another wavering u-turn and departed downhill at a gathering speed difficult to relate to the combined age of him and the bike. He was leaning forward to reduce wind resistance and, as he disappeared into the distance, my anticipation of his hat blowing off was thwarted by the fact that he must have glued it on. At the bottom of the hill the road turned sharp left and I expected to see an old man- and- bike-shaped hole in the hedge when we got there, but his brakes must have been up to the challenge, and he'd disappeared into our memories.

      "How old is that guide book we're using", someone asked as we set out wearily to follow the old man's directions.

      "Hem, er hem, hem", said the Mighty Leader, looking nervously at the front of the book. "Can't tell. The print's too small", he continued, before changing the subject to disguise the fact that it appeared to be pre-war. The question as to which war was another interesting conundrum no-one dared to pose.

      Then there is Fred. Fred comes to represent the rebel. He never wears boots, only aged, leaking trainers, and he makes no concession to the walking fraternity by indulging in anoraks or anything pertaining to be reasonably waterproof. If you want an idea of his appearance, think Worzel Gummage. Negotiating large puddles and muddy stretches is usually achieved by making a frantic run and seemingly attempting to skim over the surface like a pond skater or, perhaps, Jesus. A variation on this is the high-stepping pointed toes ballet technique, also performed at high speed. His theory is that the faster you go the less chance the water has to reach your socks. However, from the limited view I've had of his socks, its a theory open to a bit of a rethink. His political views perfectly balance those of The Mighty Leader, being as far to the left as Harry's are to the right.

      Charlie is the scientist of the group and expert in bird recognition. The fact that he once mistook a Boeing 707 for a blackbird ("well, it was against the sun") is something he hopes to live down but, knowing the unforgiving nature of the rest of The DOGS, he never will. When we stop for lunch at a pub he sees it as his duty to put on as much weight as the walk may have worn off by ordering a slap up meal, disdaining the soup the rest of us restrict ourselves to and belching away happily through the rest of the walk. Together with Fred, he vies for a more elevated position in the hierarchy of the group. However, while Fred tries to achieve this by defeating the Mighty Leader in argument, Charlie does it by sucking up. With political views which veer alarmingly between ‘look after the poor’ and ‘castrate the bastards who drop litter’, it is a bit difficult to put a finger on where his true leanings are.

      Baahir is a recently retired surgeon. He's lived most of his life in this country but still retains a heavy Indian accent. He is a relative newcomer to the group and there is little to say about him yet, except that politically he's more in line with Fred. The Mighty Leader tends to treat him with more respect than the rest of us and I suspect this is because a. he was a surgeon (Harry places surgeons in the same category as anyone who's name is prefixed by 'Sir'), and b. he could be 'useful if someone has a heart attack on a walk'. The logic of this is a bit difficult to follow because he was a brain surgeon.

      Finally, there's me. I'm the Chronicler and my duty is to record each walk for posterity. I've told you about the group because, at some time in the future, I intend to talk about some of the walks. Bet you can't wait. For now though, it's over to gardening and the topic which most readily relates to DOGS in my mind is nuts.
Hazel nuts (Corylus avellana)
      I've nearly always been disappointed when I've collected nuts in the countryside ( and there are plenty around when you get your eye in) because I've taken them at the wrong time - too early and they are white and rubbery - too late and some turn to dust in the shell. The art is in getting there just as the leaves are beginning to turn and the nuts are ready to fall naturally. Even then it's not too easy because the earliest ones are often empty, probably due to poor pollination, and you're in competition with squirrels for the good ones. Avoid the temptation to pick them early with the intention of them ripening at home. In my experience, it doesn't work.

      Propagating them is easy and good fun: bung fresh nuts in a bucket of water and select the ones which sink. The floaters won't germinate, so leave them for the wildlife and put the sinkers in damp sand in a well-drained pot. Then leave them outside until they start to germinate, sending out white shoots around February, and plant in pots, ensuring that they don't dry out. They'll be ready to plant out when two years old. Mice love the nuts, so make sure they're protected in the early stages.

      Corylus avellana  makes a good hedge and the coppiced wood is used widely for fencing and woodland crafts, a more ornamental plant for the garden is the variety 'Contorta', a much smaller tree.

Corylus avellana 'Contorta'
      Commonly known as 'Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' or 'corkscrew hazel', this is a plant beloved by flower arrangers. In summer the contorted twigs aren't quite so appealing, because they tend to be hidden by the leaves, but in the winter they come into their own, especially frosted or against a clear sky.  Beware of water shoots though. These are vigorous, straight growths from below the graft and should be removed to the base as soon as you spot them. Leave them on and the plant will revert to the ordinary hazel.

      This strange plant arose in a hedgerow in Gloucestershire in the 1860's and a Canon Ellacome took a cutting and grew the tree on. All today's corkscrew hazels came from that one plant and apparently the original can still be seen in the garden of Myddelton House in Enfield, Middlesex, where a friend of the Canon, Edward Bowles lived. A section of the garden was given over to oddities and Bowles called the area 'The Lunatic Asylum'. The tree is a genetic mutation and how it came about is open to speculation. However the mutation does not carry through the seed, so the only way of propagating it is by layering or grafting.

      The sex life of the hazel is quite interesting and for more information on this go to.

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