28 Jan

Tree of the month: The Hazel Tree

This month we look at the Hazel tree! An attractive tree whose fruit, associated with knowledge and protection, attracts a host of colourful wildlife and flourishes in almost any garden.

Following the long, cold winter months, the yellow catkins of the hazel tree come as welcome sight. The male parts of the Hazel that, due to their appearance are known as lambs’ tails, begin to appear in February. They provide winter pollen for bees and will bring colour to a garden before the leaves of the Hazel and other deciduous trees have yet to appear. The catkins’ early arrival on the British arboreal landscape gives the Hazel its reputation as the “Harbinger of Spring”. 

The “Landscapers Dream”

Hazel can be cultivated as a small tree or a large shrub. With their visually arresting network of branches that give texture to a garden, vibrant seasonal colours, and versatility as a plant; Hazel is a landscaper’s dream. A Hazel tree will flourish in alkaline or neutral soils and doesn’t mind if you plant it in direct sunlight or partial shade. So, whether in orchard or hedgerow, facing north, south, east or west, the Hazel will thrive.

You can propagate a Hazel by seed or by layering. To grow the Hazel from scratch by seed, you will need a nut harvested from the previous summer. If the planted seed takes, it can be two to five years until the tree bears fruit (or in this case, nuts). It may be better to buy a sapling from a garden centre if you want to enjoy your own hazelnuts sooner. These saplings are best planted in between the months of October and February, but if they have been cared for, then they can be planted a little later in the year. A Hazel tree can grow between four to eight meters high and four to eight meters wide, so this needs to be taken into account when deciding where to position the tree.  One of the prevailing attractions of the Hazel tree is that it can be coppiced. Hazel will regenerate quickly enough to allow a tree to be harvested for its wood every few seasons. Hazelwood is prized for the durability and high elasticity of its wood, traditionally used for wattle, walking sticks, woven fencing and baskets. If basket weaving isn’t your thing, then Hazelwood is a good fuel for open fires and wood burners, but crucially, coppicing allows the size of the tree to be controlled.

Nuts about nuts

The nuts, called Filberts, begin to develop from the pollinated female buds in August. The buds turn from red to green and the brown nut emerges from the flower. The green bud around the nut has the appearance of a helmet, giving the Hazel its scientific name Corylus Avellana. “Corylus” deriving from the Latin for helmet. 

Hazelnuts have been eaten as food for centuries, as they are full of nutrients such as vitamin E, manganese and copper. They also have a high content of omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, though their flavour makes them particularly popular with chocolate or granola. However, you may find yourself competing with wildlife for these tasty nuts. A fruit-bearing Hazel tree will attract several animals into your garden in late summer and early autumn.  Their nuts are popular morsels for woodpeckers, jays, red squirrels and bank voles.        

Protection, Knowledge and Wisdom

As with most trees native to northern Europe, the Hazel has various mythologies surrounding it. 

The Brothers Grimm, in their fairy tales, bestowed the branches of the Hazel tree the ability to protect one against snakes – though this attribute is unlikely to be required, even in the wildest of British gardens. The ancient Greeks also believed that Hazelwood offered protection. Myths from the time describe warriors weaving Hazelwood into their headpieces to protect them against evil.

However, one of the most famous legends of the Hazel tree comes from Irish folklore. In Celtic legend, the Hazelnut is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. The legend has it that the nuts that fell from nine Hazel trees growing around a scared pool were eaten by salmon – itself a sacred fish in druidic tradition. The salmon, upon consuming the nuts, absorbed their power of knowledge. A druid teacher, wishing to become all-knowing, caught one of these salmon and asked his student, Fionn mac Cumhaill, to cook the salmon but not to eat it. The student did as instructed, but whilst cooking the fish he touched the salmon with his thumb. As he sucked on his thumb to cool it down, he and not the teacher, absorbed the fish’s wisdom.  Fionn mac Cumhaill, better known as Fin McCool in Britain, became one of the most famous heroes in Celtic legend. 

In Irish folklore, it was also believed that drinking hazelnut beverages helped develop prophetic powers. If you would like to see if this is true, or fancy taking part in Veganuary 2021, here is a recipe for hazelnut milk that you can try with the harvest of nuts the wildlife haven’t nabbed.