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Halloween Twists


by Nancy Schramm


This month let's take a look at how the plant world celebrates Halloween. Plants might not put on costumes and disguises, but I'd like to think they celebrate in their own twisted way.

Here are a few of my favorite plants that grow in unexpected directions.

Juncus effusus "Spiralis" is a corkscrew rush that grows (yes, the name gives you a clue) in a corkscrew spiral. The green stems look like someone has tried to straighten out a Slinky. These spiraling stems grow in a clump directly out of the ground up to 2' tall. They take sun or part shade and regular water. Another variety, J. e. "Unicorn" is similar but bigger (3') and another species, Juncus inflexus or hard rush offers us a gray-green version called "Afro."

Our second plant with a twisted attitude is the curly willow (Salix matsudana "Tortuosa"). This fascinating plant can be grown as a tree or as a large shrub if you're really into pruning. The twisted branches and stems with curly leaves are very attractive in flower arrangements. Remember this is a willow ­ it likes water and full to 1/2-day sun. There is also a golden variegated version (S. alba "Tristis" x S. matsudana "Tortuosa") that is a bit more difficult to find.

One last plant that fits in the "spiral" group is an ornamental onion. Allium sphaerocephalon "Hair" belongs because of its flower that grows at the top of a 2-3' stem. When the papery sheath falls off of the emerging flower head, you can almost hear it go "sproing!" The greenish flower parts twist and stick out in all directions like a really bad perm. Plant in full or part sun, and let it go dry when the foliage dies down. Be aware that this one can spread freely.

Moving on to another form of twisted plants, "Contorta" is often used as part of a plant's botanical name when the growth habit is twisted or bent in different directions. There are many woody plants with contorted forms. (Woody plants are those that do not die down to the ground each year). These forms are often sports (spontaneously occurring mutations that suddenly start growing on an otherwise normal looking plant). Observant gardeners have sometimes become famous (in the plant world) by recognizing the appeal of and propagating these sports.

One of the most famous of these is Harry Lauder's walking stick (Corylus avellana "Contorta"). Named for a famous comedian of the time, this is an amazingly bent and twisted filbert. It can get to about 8' x 8' in size, but is also effective confined to a container. The branching structure is especially ornamental in winter when dormant. Selective pruning can accentuate the structure, and then you can use the branches in flower arrangements.

Another plant popular with flower arrangers is Corokia cotoneaster. This shrub will slowly grow to about 8' tall in the ground if you give it good drainage, but is also one more plant that takes well to a container. The reddish black branches grow in a zig-zag pattern and have small dark green oval leaves and star shaped yellow flowers.

The contorted flowering quince (Chaenomeles "Contorta") is yet another great shrubby plant that is happy to offer up branches for cutting and arranging. This deciduous shrub can grow to 5' tall and has some pretty substantial spines. The flowering quince blooms late winter/early spring before the leaves appear. It is hardy and will tolerate almost any soil if you give it sun and moderate water.

Many of us are familiar with the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Although native to the east and central U.S., once introduced to the west it escaped and made itself at home here, too. There are several selections of contorted locusts that can be quite dramatic. R. p. "Tortuosa" has the potential of reaching 50' tall, and R. p. "Twisty Baby" is a dwarf-limited to less than 10' tall. Both have the fine textured appearance of their parent, but put to fine effect with the bent and twisted branches and leaves.


For those of you who are only able to garden indoors, I won't leave you out this month. Hoya carnosa "Krinkle Kurl" is a houseplant that is often called Hindu-rope plant. The leaves are all twisted and spaced closely together on the flexible stem of a vining plant. Wonderful in the house, because they do not require direct sun, the Hoya gives you the extra, added attraction of flowers. Once they become pot-bound, Hoyas will bloom all along the stems at the leaf nodes. The small waxy flowers bloom in clusters on short spurs, are fragrant, and usually white.

Yes, there are more fantastic contorted plants, such as cultivars of hawthorn, mulberry, and camellia, but finding a source is a challenge.


Copyright. Out and About Magazine

           Third generation owner of Carman's Nursery, Nancy Schramm and her husband recently moved the nursery from Los Gatos to Gilroy where they have lived for 24 years. The nursery is known for growing rare and unusual plants including bonsai starters, dwarf conifers, rock garden plants and (of course) less common fruiting plants. Nancy has been a member of the Western Horticultural Society since 2003. She follows in the footsteps of her father Ed Carman, the founder of Carman's Nursery. Ed was one of the charter members of the Western Horticultural Society and also served on the first Board.

Contact Nancy at


Western Horticulture Society
PO Box 166, Mountain View, CA 94042
(650) 948-4614 or (650) 941-6136