Archive for the ‘Woody’ Category

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’

Young Harry Lauder with his walking stick

An oddity.
This twisted shrub is named for Scottish Vaudeville stageman [Harry Lauder] (b. 1870, d. 1950), who often performed with a gnarled walking stick.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (also simply called contorted hazelnut or contorted filbert), is a non-fruit bearing cultivar of the common hazelnut or filbert. Its parent, Corylus avellana, is the species grown commercially for edible nuts.


The shrub itself grows in a spreading clump about eight to twelve feet high if left to its own devices. The deciduous leaves a broad and fuzzy with a serrated margin. Small, yellowish flowers bloom in early spring before the leaves come in.

It shines in winter. After the foliage drops, the corkscrew character of the branches takes center stage. In late spring and summer, reproductive catkins hang in dusty clusters along the branches and remain through much of the winter. It’s definitely a great specimen plant and fun to sneak into otherwise innocent-looking shrub borders.

There are quite a few of these around Raleigh, but the pictures featured in this post come from the plants at J.C. Raulston Arboretum.

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ in early April












And here’s one of Harry Lauder’s most famous songs, “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”, from a 1911 release:


Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

In most of the South, a mimosa is either the tree with fluffy pink flowers or a delicious brunch cocktail.

Silky pink flowers of the mimosa

Silky pink flowers of the mimosa, Albizia julibrissin

Most of the mimosa trees in the area are some variety or [Albizia julibrissin] or another, but are no longer taxonomically classified as true mimosas. Most of the plants in question are still members of the pea family (your friend Fabacae) though the genus Mimosa is now in its own subfamily.

Thomas Jefferson even [recorded] having A. julibrissin at Monticello, though he called it by another of its common common names: the silk tree. It came to this country via European settlers, and it came to the Europeans via the Florentine nobleman Filippo degli Albizzi. Some of A. julibrissin‘s common names in other countries translate to variations of “night sleeper” and “sleeping tree”, referring to the closing of its leaves at night.

A. julibrissin‘s star feature is the dense clusters of silky, pink flowers throughout summer. The flowers are usually white to pink but have no petals–the color and wispy texture comes from groupings of stamens. The flowers are fragrant and attract butterflies, bees, and other insects.

The plants themselves are about five to twelve meters tall with umbrella-like branches, making it a popular shade tree. The bipinnate leaves are distinctive because of their fine texture and ability to fold themselves closed during the night or rain. The trees are deciduous but provide winter interest with their gently curving branches and prolific fruiting. The seed pods are typical for legumes and look like a skinny pea pod. The pods are edible and sometimes used in livestock feeds.

Leaves both open and collapsed

Leaves both open and collapsed

These days, mimosas are considered an invasive species. The strong root systems have been known to crack and disturb sidewalks and foundations, and is a frequent volunteer along roadside tree borders.

As a side note, the Wikipedia page for the [mimosa cocktail] posits that the drink was named for another not-really-a-true-mimosa-anymore yellow-flowering tree called [Acacia dealbata].

Witch hazel

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

hammelis_x_intermedia2_sunburst_feb2009I love witch hazels. This very small tree or shrub boasts at least two native species, Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis. They typically have yellow to orange or red flowers in the early spring and winter. The flowers usually bloom before the leaves, so yellow branches stand out with their four-petaled flowers and red calyxes. Many varieties (often derived from the hybrid H. X intermedia) sport multi-colored or extra-long petaled flowers. There’s a beautiful example of H. X intermedia ‘Sunburst’ in the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. There’s a [full-res version] of a photo I took of the flowers that I’m using as a desktop background.

Michael Dirr (of the [Manual of Woody Landscape Plants]) recommends planting witch hazels together with early-flowering cherries (like the carmine-colored Prunus campanulata varieties) for a “splashy” winter display.

After leafing, witch hazels retain their red calyxes. The leaves are obovate, a little asymmetrical, and dark green with sinuous margins. The plants themselves tend to prefer a more moist environment and tolerate most light conditions. Fall leaf color is yellow.

hammelis_x_intermedia1_sunburst_feb2009Witch hazel probably received its name from a homophonic Middle English word for bendy or pliable and not from “witch” as we know it today. Witch hazel is not closely related to actual hazels, but they were both used as [dowsing] or water-finding rods (or divination rods, witching rods, or water-witching rods). Because hazel was a preferred dowsing rod in English, the American plant also became known as hazel. Dowsing is still practiced today but the preferred rods are reportedly made of brass.

Extracts and infusions of witch hazel bark, leaves, and stems have long been used for their high tannin content and astringent properties. I’m looking for more good documentation, but it was reportedly used by indigenous Americans as well as European colonists. There are numerous references on the internet to preparing your own extracts, tinctures, infusions, and distillations of H. virginiana, none of which I’ve personally tried or advocate. However, it’s one of the remaining herbal extracts that is approved as an over-the-counter drug (and not just an herbal supplement) by the [FDA] as a skin protectant and anorectal treatment.

whazelmedWhen I asked my mom about witch hazel, the first thing she said was, “Oh! I can smell it now.” She said her grandmother always had a bottle and they “put it on everything–witch hazel and calamine lotion.” This traditional remedy for cuts, scrapes, and insect bites is still sold in drug stores today. I’m on the younger end of my twenties so I think I may have missed witch hazel’s heyday. I went to the Rite Aid in Cameron Village to search out a bottle to apply to a mild burn on my hand. There was an 86% witch hazel extract in alcohol so I bought that. Witch hazel is also the active ingredient in Preparation H wipes but I didn’t require a hemorrhoid treatment (though it can be used to treat irritation from vaginosis as well).

whazelmed4Anyway, it seems to be soothing. There was an immediate cooling effect (probably from the evaporation of the alcohol) but the pain is noticeably duller. It may be psychosomatic but if the effect is the same it’s okay in my book. It’s also supposed to be good for perpetually oily skin (like mine) so I’ve applied some after washing my face. I’m worried about the alcohol over-drying my skin, but I used to love the now-discontinued Burt’s Bees Wild Lettuce Toner and that had similar proportions (what I bought is 86 per cent active, 14 per cent inert). At the very least it’ll temporarily minimize my pores.

I’ve also heard [rumors] of people using witch hazel Preparation H wipes on their faces to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and body builders using the wipes to temporarily tighten the appearance of their abs. Some women have also used wash clothes soaked in witch hazel to help minimize the appearance of varicose veins.

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Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Vitex Vitex angus-castus is often simply called “vitex” but it has a number of more colorful common names: chaste tree/chasteberry or monk’s pepper. This shrubby tree is also a common home and commercial landscape plant, dotting yards and parking lots throughout the Southeastern U.S. It can grow to heights of eight to ten feet but can be kept in a desired shape with spring pruning according to [Dirr]. The flowers appear in summer in the anthocyanin color ranges (but commonly some shade of lilac) on spiky racemes about three to six inches long. The palmate leaves are dark green in color with a fine, wrinkled texture and slightly silvery on their undersides due to fine hairs.

Traditionally, the berries and aromatic foliage of this shrub were recognized as an anaphrodisiac. The common name “monk’s pepper” refers to the use of the small berries (botanically they are actually [drupes]) as a libido suppressant in the early Christian church. Dr. John Riddle, an authority on ancient and medieval pharmacology, reports many interesting uses in his very approachable book [Eve's Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West] (I can’t recommend it enough!). Besides being an ancient abortifacient, vitex was used in pre-Christian fertility or purity rituals and also to treat priapism.

VitexThere is some modern research about how compounds derived from vitex species affect mammalian fertility: vitex was shown to prevent nearly one hundred per cent of egg implantation in [mice] as well as decrease sperm production in male [dogs]. There are also current clinical trials using vitex to treat PMS symptoms. You can even buy vitex herbal supplements in the forms of tinctures or teas, or make your own.

I don’t advocate self-prescribed alternative medicine, but vitex is not regarded as poisonous and if your plants are pesticide- and disease-free you can make your own vitex preparations at home. Pregnant women should not use vitex-containing products because of the potential for complications for both the baby and the mother. Vitex can also react with hormone therapies and hormonal birth control and even some other medications.

Neat how a plant so powerful and rich in folklore could be sitting in your front yard, yes?