Hazel `walking stick' makes a cheery Christmas tree

Harry MacLennan Lauder, as he was christened in 1870, didn't carry just an ordinary cane. He swung -- with great 'elan -- a twisted stick reminiscent of an Irish shillelagh. ``Topping the bill'' in British vaudeville, as he did in his heyday, or cutting records for some of the earliest phonographs, he brought many hours of pleasure to a generation gone by. He's remembered by old-timers whenever the strains of ``I Love a Lassie'' drift nostalgically over the airwaves -- or perhaps when they gaze upon the shrub Corylus Avellana contorta -- also known as ``Harry Lauder's walking stick.''

One such specimen grows to the right of a sidewalk leading to my neighbor's front door. It's especially odd looking or contorted in winter, when its leaves are gone and the black, corkscrew branches stand out stark against white snow. This rather rare shrub -- a hazel, though admittedly an outlandish member of the clan -- is available in larger nurseries.

Sir Harry was knighted in 1919. If he were around today he'd probably still be delighting audiences with those inimitable character sketches and Scottish dialect songs he made famous. They were all, incidentally, of his own creation.

In recent years my neighbor and I have found another use for the curly hazelnut ``walking stick,'' which does well in sun or shade.

Were it not for careful pruning this corylus would be a Medusa-head of twistery, so every December my friend clips and shapes the shrub to keep it from contorting over the sidewalk and snarling the hair of unwary visitors.

One day, I asked what she intended to do with the cuttings. Instead of throwing them on the compost heap, she agreed to share a holiday project I had in mind. Ever since, we've garnered the lopped branches for ``Harry Lauder Christmas trees.''

It's quite simple. First we buy small plastic, rubber, or metal birds at tag sales or wherever we can get them cheaply. Then we push a stout end of the hazel twig in a pot of earth -- or some substitute material -- and sprinkle the surface with artificial snow. We attach the little birds at random, adding small, colored bows to bare tips.

Once the arrangement is completed the effect is rather striking. All those corkscrew fingers holding little blue jays, yellow finches, or brown sparrows seem happily bejeweled. We try to save a crimson cardinal for the very top of the tree. Recipients of these gifts save their Harry Lauder Christmas trees over many seasons.

For anyone fortunate enough to own a Harry Lauder walking stick hazel, Sir Harry is never far from the scene. His spirit dances jauntily across a winter landscape -- ``Roamin' in the Gloamin' '' -- roguish as ever. One might even be challenged to go up to the attic and locate some of his early records to accompany that Highland fling!

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