The Corkscrew hazel, Corylus avellana contorta, is true to its name. Its twigs and branches corkscrew in all directions so the whole bush appears to have undergone a tight perm. Its best season is winter when the tortuous branches are bare of leaves a magnificent sight encrusted with hoar frost.
Slowly it forms a balanced, rounded shrub 10ft high, its gnarled habit giving it an appearance of permanence and age well beyond its years, and, strangely for such wildly spiralling branches, an air of calm.
This freakish form of our native hazel was first spotted in a Gloucestershire hedgerow in 1863. Like its parent it drapes itself with yellow catkins, or "lambs tails" in late winter, but these are rarely followed by nuts.
Mahonia japonica is one of the most beautiful and ornamental of all evergreen shrubs. Plant it next to the Corkscrew hazel and you have a striking winter contrast. For the Mahonia has lush, glossy leaves, each composed of separate holly-like leaflets and arranged in great rosettes. They vary in colour from dark green to red-green, depending on the soil in which they root, and in winter they burnish with tints of red and yellow.
From October onwards flower sprays develop from the centre of the rosettes, opening lemon-yellow and fragrant until March or April. They are followed by green berries that darken to blue-black, like small grapes and with the same pale bloom.
At the feet of these shrubs try our native Iris foetidissima, the Stinking Iris, which some people swear smells of roast beef. That shouldn't put you off, the leaves only smell if you bruise them and the plant has much else to recommend it.
Its lush, deep green foliage will grow in shade, the grass-like blades seeming to catch and reflect any light there is. The flowers are typically Iris-like, but are dull purple, tinged with yellow. They have a delicate beauty when you see them close-up but at a distance are easily lost amongst the foliage.
The Stinking Iris's chief asset are its seedheads, which no amount of foliage could hide. The pods swell until they burst, revealing vivid orange-scarlet seeds that cling to the pods for much of the winter.
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