HAZELNUTS- A POWERFUL ALLY
Powerful and packed with density on multiple levels, hazelnuts are so amazing. There are several species of hazelnut around the world belonging to the corlyus genus. Most species of hazelnut are shrubs, but some can be huge forest trees. Hazelnuts have been eaten by people for thousands of years. Shells have been found in ancient cave sites. Hazelnuts were one of the first plants to appear behind retreating glaciers in a volatile and raw world. They really are rugged, adaptable survivors
What is a shrub
The word shrub can be improved on for sure. It makes it sound as if hazels were a cute little bush, but they are not. Shrubs are actually very powerful. They are true survivors. Shrubs are built to be browsed upon, cut, burned, and trampled. They will send up endless shoots at any disturbance.
Most shrubs like hazelnut behave quite differently depending on where they are grown and how often they receive disturbance.
A hazel in the shade will grow slowly and patiently, just kind of hanging out. If that same plant is suddenly exposed to light because of an opening in the forest canopy then it will become aggressive and race for light with abandon. For a few years it will build a dense root mass and a profusion of woody shoots, and then it will flower and fruit.
If nothing bothers a hazel shrub for a few decades, it will begin to decline. The wood will become old and tired and openings in the center of the shrub will appear. Soon other plants will begin to fill in and the bush will slowly die.
However, if a hazel is cut to the ground when it is 10 or 20 years old, it will start over. New young vigorous shoots will rapidly rise and it may live for another 30-50 years. Of course, if this plant is cut on a repeated cycle, it may live indefinitely. There are hazel shrubs in Europe today that were planted by the roman empire and still healthy because they are repeatedly cut.
The whole bush does not need to be cut to the ground, you could just cut out any older stems.
Hazelnuts evolved to live on savannahs and the edges of woodlands along with wildfires and herds of mammoths and elk.
Types of Hazelnuts
European (c. avellana): These grow as shrubs throughout Europe and central Asia. There are mountainsides of European hazel growing along the Black sea and the Caspian sea. They are primarily gathered by hand and brought into collection points where they are sent to large processing facilities.Around 90% of cultivated hazelnuts come from Turkey.
Most of these nuts are much smaller than what we see in stores around the holidays. They closely resemble our native hazelnuts and they are used for things like Nutella, oil, nutbutters, desserts, and candies.
European hazels have the largest nuts. The husks usually only come halfway down on the nut, leaving the bottom of the nut exposed.
The European hazel is not very cold hardy (somewhere around zone 5 or 7 depending on variety). It also lacks disease resistance. Here in eastern North America, we have a native fungus that devastates European hazels, but leaves our native hazels unharmed. This fungus is called eastern filbert blight (EFB).
American (c. Americana): This adaptable shrub has a range across almost all of eastern north American extending all the way up to the tree line in Canada and Alaska. It is hardy to at least zone 2, possibly 1 in certain genetic pools.
American hazel has a big husk that completely envelops the nut.
It is a fiercely suckering plant. In the upper Midwest and into parts of central Canada, American hazel will make huge thickets covering hundreds of acres at a time.
A single shrub will be 12-15 feet high and wide at maturity.
Beaked hazel (c. cornuta): Beaked hazel has a similar range to American but stretching farther west and north. Here in upstate NY, I have only found it growing sparsely in the understory. It is smaller plant than the American. The husks also look different, they are pointed and very sticky with irritating hairs.
Hybrid Hazel: The European hazel has been bred for millennia, but our native hazels do not appear to have been bred until very recent times. They are usually not as productive as the Europeans.
To combine the cold hardiness and disease resistance of the native hazels with the productivity and large nut size of the European, breeders have crossed the species. Some crosses are between American and European, and some also involve the beaked hazel. Many of these hybrid hazels are great plants. There is genetic variability between individuals, but overall they appear to be precocious (early bearing), productive and very tough survivors. The nuts are almost always smaller than the large European filberts we are used to seeing around Christmas time, but they are no less tasty or useful.
Growing Hazelnuts- drought, soil tolerance, competititive
Growing hybrid or native hazels is not hard. The plants are very tough and competitive. They are able to survive very well in just about any soil or light exposure. I have seen them thriving in heavy clay, sand, full sun and full shade. Nut production and growth are both greatly increased in full sun and in good soil.
They are very drought tolerant as well as flood tolerant, but they will undoubtedly benefit from decent soil conditions.
Form: People grow hazelnuts in either tree form or shrub form. The tree form requires repeated burning or pruning of sprouts. The plant wants to be a bush, but a single trunk is selected instead. The advantage is that mechanical sweepers are able to drive under the trees and efficiently harvest the orchard floor. This is the growing style of modern hazel production in the pacific northwest. It does not appeal to me at all.
In shrub form, hazels are able to grow into their natural shape. In Turkey, hazel bushes are planted in a circle called an Ocak. Growers in the Midwest have been growing hybrid hazels bushes as hedgerows. Hedge plantings is the method I have been using here.
Spacing: 3 feet between plants between within the row, and 12-15 between rows is a good way to go for the hedgerow system. The hedges will be dense and compete with weeds at a young age. The space between the rows will really fill in over time as the bushes become older, bigger, and wider. Many farmers are experimenting with grazing animals between hedges of hazel.
Pruning/Coppicing: Cut hazels when they are dormant. During the winter, their energy is stored in their roots. If you cut them in the summer, they could be severely weakened. To really thrive over the long haul, hazels do need to be cut periodically. Cutting the whole bush to the ground (or coppicing) every ten years keeps them invigorated. The first year after coppicing, there is no harvest.
Pruning is an alternative to coppicing. Stems older than 4 or 5 years old are removed annualy.
Flowering and pollination: Hazels are wind pollinated. Each plant produces male and female flowers. The male flowers are dangly catkins. They appear in the fall and persist throughout the winter, finally opening and shedding pollen early in the spring. The female flowers are very small beautiful pink stars that form on the tip of a bud.
Hazelnuts are not self pollinating. They need to be close enough to a different hazelnut to receive pollen from the wind.
Hazel flowers are very cold hardy. The male catkins are hardy to at least -50f and the female flowers are hardy to at least 2f.
Harvesting: As soon as the nut is able to be wiggled in its husk, hazels can be picked. It is okay if they are still green or white so long as they can move in the husk. If you push on the nut and it is stuck, then its not yet ripe.
Hand harvesting is surprisingly fast. The nuts grow in large clusters of anywhere from 2 to 10 nuts typically, though larger numbers have been observed. I think picking hazelnuts is really fun. Sacks fill up so quickly. Branches are easily bent to within reach because they are so flexible.
Machine harvesting is done in the northwest with sweeper type machines. Some folks in the Midwest have been using blueberry pickers to harvest hedges.
The Nuts: Hazels are very high in protein and oil. They are, by weight, 60% oil. They have three times the protein of soybeans. They are tightly packed nuggets of energy.
They can be pressed into an excellent nutbutter. They make a great oil for salads or popcorn and for cooking. After being squeezed for oil, the presscake remains. This is a great product for things like cookies or granola bars.
When eaten raw, the nuts can sometimes have a bitter flavor. I have found that if they are roasted, that they are almost never bitter, and a real strong hazel flavor comes through.
The Shells: Hazel shells are much denser than wood. They give off as many BTUs as anthracite coal when they are burned. Many modern hazel processing facilities power themselves with the shells burned in bio-generators. The ash from burned hazel shell is extremely high in many trace minerals, and is a good fertilizer.
The Wood: In northern Europe, hazels have been cultivated for centuries for their wood. Hazel canes are very strong and flexible. Wattle fences, and even house walls are woven from the stems. The wood is fairly durable and makes a good alternative to bamboo canes for northern gardeners.
Hazel wood also burns very hot and can be used as a fuel, for charcoal, or biochar.
Because hazels need to be cut to grow well for a long time, there is always an abundance of hazel wood available to the grower.
Hazelnuts are excellent plants for wildlife. Their dense thickets provide great cover for rabbits, grouse, turkeys, songbirds, raccoons, deer and many other animals. The catkins are eaten throughout the winter by game birds and deer. The nuts are highly prized by turkeys, crows, jays, rodents, and foragers. The winter buds and summer leaves provide browse to deer. The stems bark is eaten by rabbits.
What forest edge would not benefit from the addition of a few hazel bushes?
Hazels provide food, carbon, soil and water retention, wildlife habitat, wind breaks, wood, and strength to the world. If you care about food justice or climate change or wildlife, then hazelnuts are your allies. They will do the work willingly and very well.
While annual agriculture provides us with abundant food, it also erases the landscape every year and burns up the carbon in our soils. Hazelnuts are a force that is far more effective than any vote or dollar in creating the change we want to see.