Shrubs with a Twist

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

For those of us in the northern parts of the U.S., the idea of “winter interest” can be vastly overrated. Birds and deer devour colorful berries before the end of December, and drying winds scorch and tatter evergreen foliage. Multi-day stretches of sub-freezing temperatures zap almost all of the perennials and bulbs touted as being winter bloomers, delaying flowers for weeks or months, and heavy snow can cover the ground layer anyway.

Some years, intriguing stems are about all we have to admire during the dead of winter. Woodies such as bright-barked shrubby dogwoods and willows are welcome for color, but the deer like them too, so it can be unwise to depend on them alone. Sometimes, shrubs with curiously contorted stems are about the best we have for truly unique winter features.

One of twisted shrubs that I’m becoming increasingly fond of is contorted quince (Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Contorta’). I’ve tried a few other flowering quinces, but they bloom for such a short time and look so twiggy and uninteresting the rest of the year that I’ve removed all but this one.

Its form is much more open than the others, so its stems show off beautifully, and it’s easier to pick out dead leaves and other debris that catch on the very short but very sharp thorns. Contorted quince stems are lovely when dusted with snow and outstanding when encased in ice.

Winter interest isn’t its only good feature, either. The plant is naturally very compact (2 to 3 feet tall and wide), so it fits easily into a mixed border or foundation planting.

It’s also very pretty in bud and flower (usually early to mid-April here in southeastern PA).

Plum-sized, yellow fruits may follow the flowers if another quince is nearby, but they’re usually hidden among the rich green, slightly twisted leaves. I’ve read that the fruits are edible but sour, so I’ve never tried them; I just let the few that form drop off in fall. After 6 years, I’ve gotten only one seedling, and it too is contorted.

Reportedly hardy in Zones 5 to 9, contorted quince is available from a number of mail-order sources, including Raintree Nursery and Fairweather Gardens.

Another twisted shrub in the marginally edible category is ‘Flying Dragon’ hardy orange or bitter orange (Poncirus trifoliata).

Besides having an intriguing curvy shape, the stems are bright green all year, so they add color as well as form through the winter.

Small, white flowers line the stems in spring.

The orange-yellow fruits that follow are said to be edible but, like those of the contorted quince, very sour. They’re also very ornamental, so I prefer to leave them on the plant.

They eventually drop off by early to mid-winter. The abundant seeds seem to sprout readily, and many of the seedlings also show varying degrees of waviness in their stems and spines as they grow. The deep green leaves make an outstanding backdrop for lighter flowers and foliage.

And the luminous yellow fall color is absolutely outstanding.

‘Flying Dragon’ is usually rated for Zones 6 and south, so the “hardy” part of the name is relative: it’s relatively hardier than most other citrus fruits. The species can grow to 20 feet tall, but this selection stays smaller, fortunately (6 to 8 feet, usually), so it’s suitable for a mixed border; just keep it well away from paths, and give it plenty of room so you don’t have to keep it in check with frequent pruning (a daunting task even with full body armor, due to the seriously wicked spines). I occasionally cut out the tallest stems at the base to control the height of mine, and it’s quite a challenge to extricate them from those that remain, because the thorns can easily penetrate even leather gloves.

For that reason, hardy orange is not something I’d recommend for gardens shared with kids or pets. That being said, I recall a grouping of the species planted on the grounds of my college in an effort to keep students from taking a shortcut in one area; it definitely worked. So if you want to discourage deer, dogs, or nosy neighbors from wandering into your yard, a hedge of ‘Flying Dragon’ may be an option to consider. The tangled stems also seem to make great habitat for small birds; I imagine that they’re quite safe from predators in there. ‘Flying Dragon’ is available from Lazy S’s Farm and Gossler Farms Nursery, among other sources.

For completely thorn-free twists and turns, I suggest ‘Red Majestic’ contorted hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’) instead. You’re probably already familiar with the green-leaved version (C. avellana ‘Contorta’), commonly called Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, which produces amazingly contorted and curled stems.

‘Red Majestic’ looks basically the same in outline, though it doesn’t seem to curl quite as much.

The main difference is its foliage, which emerges a rich, deep red.

By midsummer, it turns a plain to purple-tinged green.

Not much floral interest on this one; like other hazels, it has cylindrical catkins that dangle from the stems in winter. They’re interesting up close by not especially showy from more than a few feet away.

Generally rated for Zones 4 to 8, ‘Red Majestic’ is relatively new on the market, and a good-sized plant can be quite expensive. I was lucky enough to score a small one (about 1 foot tall, with two stems) five years ago, and it’s now about 3 feet tall, with four main stems.

I wouldn’t describe it as especially fast-growing, but if you can be patient, I’d encourage you to look for small plants to save money. Even more important than the size, though, is getting an own-root plant, if at all possible. Most contorted hazels are grafted onto regular hazel roots, and the rootstocks tend to send up many straight-stemmed shoots that must be pruned out frequently (ideally several times through the growing season, while they’re still small) to keep the contorted parts at their best. It’s very much worth seeking one grown on its own roots to eliminate that lifetime pruning commitment! A few sources for this selection include White Flower Farm, Gossler Farms Nursery, and ForestFarm. I don’t know whether they sell grafted or own-root plants, however, so I suggest asking before you order.

One other bit of trivia about this one: it appears that there are at least two strains of ‘Red Majestic’ in the trade. According to the patent filed for an even newer red-leaved, contorted-stem selection known as ‘Red Dragon’ (you can read the details here), DNA analysis indicates that there’s a genetic difference between ‘Red Majestic’ plants acquired from Klehm and from Spring Meadow Nursery. I have no idea if there’s any visible difference, though; it probably doesn’t matter which strain you get. Or, you may want to wait until ‘Red Dragon’ is available, because it’s supposed to hold its red coloration longer into the summer; there doesn’t seem to be any release date set at the moment, though.

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Debi January 11, 2010, 7:20 am

I’ve never seen “curly” quince before and love the look. Several years ago I planted a Don Shadow “Traveller’s” Redbud that has similar qualities, but no fruit. These are outstanding plants and I do like the thorns for bird protection. Isn’t it thrashers that nest in thorny trees? Hm…must research. Thank you for this fascinating, educational post!

I did a little research of my own, Debi, to find out more about the redbud you mentioned. It looks like a very interesting weeping form. I’m not sure which birds in particular nest in thorny shrubs, but I would think it would be a great place for just about any small bird. Most cats would be too smart to try to get through those thorns.

Autumn Belle January 11, 2010, 7:33 am

I like best the picture of orange stems and buds covered with frost/ice? The pink flowers looks like the plum blossoms that I use to decorate my home.

Hi there, Belle. That shot of the hardy orange encased in ice is one of my favorites too. I understand that the quince stems are easy to force for indoor bloom; I don’t know if I could bear to cut them, though.

Janet January 11, 2010, 8:43 am

Some really nice examples of contorted shrubs…think I just put three of them on my wish list. Thanks!

My pleasure, Janet. I’m always glad to enable other plant geeks.

Dave January 11, 2010, 8:43 am

Very neat plants! The quince and filbert are two I eventually want to add. You’re right about berries being very fleeting winter color. Most of ours were gone a couple weeks into fall.

You may want to wait a few more years for the quince, Dave, because it too does have thorns (though they’re small and usually a problem only if you stick your arm into the plant and then try to pull it out again). The hazel, though, would be perfectly safe for your little ones, and I bet they’d think it was pretty neat.

elizabeth ~ so wabi sabi January 11, 2010, 8:49 am

I really enjoyed these selections…and the unique form and figure these shrubs have especially for the winter garden. I especially loved the photos of the shrubs covered in ice and snow. lovely!

Thanks, Elizabeth. It’s hard to resist photographing these shrubs in snow, because it shows off the form so beautifully.

AK January 11, 2010, 8:53 am

Glad to know about Chaenomeles ‘Contorta’! It really does look like a standout. I scored a big marked-down Corylus ‘Red Majestic’ at a big box store in the dead of summer, and at the time I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. I’m feeling validated right about now, when the rest of my “winter interest” has been pounded by snow and wind.

Hi Andrew! I’m glad to see that you started a blog of your own this fall. Good for you getting a ‘Red Majestic’ at a discount. Maybe they didn’t realize how special it is. It’s lucky to have found such a good home.

Pam/Digging January 11, 2010, 10:41 am

Your image of the contorted quince under snow is a stunner, Nan. I have seen the ‘Flying Dragon’ hardy orange here in Austin and am determined to find a place for it. These writhing shrubs look fantastic in the bare season, but you’ve shown that they look good at other times as well.

Right, it certainly should be fine for your climate too. Great! And yes, the multi-season features are a real bonus.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 11, 2010, 10:55 am

My brother-in-law sampled a fruit from my Chaenomeles last summer, and his reaction supports the statement that it’s very sour.
I just planted a ‘Red Majestic’ Corylus last spring. I might have waited had I known about ‘Red Dragon.’ I also wish I had known to ask about whether it was grafted. It’s still too much of a baby to tell if it will be sending up straight shoots.

Don’t regret planting ‘Red Majestic’, MMD. I see no evidence of ‘Red Dragon’ being anywhere near ready for the trade. By the time it’s out, if ever, you’ll already have a nice-looking shrub. If yours is grafted, you’ll probably start noticing the suckers soon. They’re green, so they should be easy to see.

Jane January 11, 2010, 1:15 pm

Yes, but when you cook quince, it is absolute paradise. It turns a rosy pink, and has a flowery perfume-y taste, and makes fabulous jam, and lots of other things, such as membrillo, the wonderful Spanish quince paste. Start here for recipes, but there are many, many more:
It’s just not meant to be eaten raw, but you are missing a lot by letting it rot on the ground.

Hi Jane. Have you used flowering quince fruits for cooking, or the regular quince (Cydonia oblonga)? I think it would take quite a few plants of the flowering quince (including other cultivars for cross pollination) to get the quantities of fruit most of the recipes call for. The results do sound delicious, though.

jodi (bloomingwriter) January 11, 2010, 4:18 pm

Want that twisted quince, Nancy! I love my ordinary Harry Lauder (I refused to buy ‘Red Majestic’ when it was so pricy) but also love my corkscrew willow, which is twisting in the wind outside my office window. The orange, I’ll have to sigh about and add to my list of plant envy subjects.

I love the willow too, Jodi – and so do the deer. I’ve been trying to get one established for three years, and it’s still about 1 foot tall. So, I can envy you yours.

Frances January 11, 2010, 7:30 pm

Hi Nan, what interesting shrubs! I think the Red Dragon hazel might need to come here. We will keep an eye out for it. The quince is cool too. We keep our three quinces to about one foot high with hard pruning. The coral blooms with the early daffs are perfect, but we don’t want the honking big shrubs they can become. I love the branching on yours. 🙂

Those coral-flowered quinces *are* nice for a punch of early color. I found a few nurseries also selling contorted forms with red or white flowers, for those who want some color variety.

Darla January 12, 2010, 7:01 am

Much interest in these…about the photo contest, do I tell you here or go back to the contest post and comment there?

You were right to leave your link on the original photo contest post, Darla.

Debra Lee Baldwin January 12, 2010, 12:51 pm

Gorgeous photos, Nan. My favorite is the twisted stems glittering with a coating of ice. Elizabeth is right—so wabi-sabi! (And so different from winter here in in Southern California.)

Thanks, Debra! We here in the frigid zones have to do what we can.

Salix January 15, 2010, 4:21 pm

Nan – those are all stunning!
I’ll be looking out for the contorted quince to ad to my garden. I have a few Chaenomeles ‘Pink Lady’ (or what is left after the rabbits have bin there)
I remember my aunt always having homemade quince jelly. She used it for topping on desserts. You can make it from both the Cydonia and Chaenomeles.

Doug January 27, 2010, 8:59 pm

I just stumbled upon your blog and very much like what I see. Having recently moved from zone 4-5 midwest digs to zone 7b Vancouver Island my gardening world has grown beyond what I ever imagined! Our home has some lovely gardens that are about 3 years old and growing very nicely. We do have a contorted hazel, about 5 feet tall, but I am now going to add some of your suggestions to my wish list. First we have to get a Noble Fir, based on a fabulous Christmas tree that friends of ours had this past holiday.

Great looking blog – keep up the good work!

Thanks, Doug! We’re delighted to have you as a reader. I can only imagine how gaining several zones has broadened your gardening horizons. Have a great time exploring your new planting opportunities!

jd david May 6, 2010, 10:57 pm

I got a Red Majestic from for 29.95 + 8.95 and it had two suckers that are twisty so I guess that means it’s not grafted but the leaves aren’t red. Should they turn red soon or did I get ripped off? I’d like it to have a straight trunk so what plant can I graft it to that will work?

If none of the leaves are red as soon as they emerge, then yes, you got the wrong plant. Once you have the true ‘Red Majestic’, I guess you could try grafting it onto a Corylus avellana seedling to get a straight trunk. I think it’s going to want to sucker too, so you’ll have a lot of regular pruning to do to keep it the way you want it.

Lori April 20, 2016, 1:36 pm

Can I start my Contorted Filbert from seed?

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