By far the quickest growing, and easiest going nut trees are Hazels. In my area we have the wild Beaked Hazelnut and we plant a Filbert type. Within a few years you can have nuts!
Hazelnuts, like most trees, will grow like crazy and produce nuts if they’re in a spot they like. And as trees go, Hazels aren’t too picky about where they like to grow. They like transitional land or hedgerows, not mature forest or open fields. Not too wet or dry and with good soil depth. In these spots it’s hard to kill them. This quality of unfailing resilience is part of why many European cultures intentionally grew them in diverse hedgerows and then coppiced them (cut them for wood) every year or two. The canes are harder, heavier and tougher than willow, able the weather the elements, but every bit as flexible. The one year shoots being mostly used for basketry. The thicker two year old stalks to make lattice for wattle and daub walls. They were similarly woven for gates and movable fencing. They were also woven together as they grew, to make impenetrable livestock fencing. The bark peels off easily and is also very strong, excellent for making quick cordage or braided rope. With such wild abundance, most years there would also have been a huge nut harvest.
While Hazelnuts are mostly known in North America through “Nutella”, or as one of those “Christmas nuts” that you need a nut cracker for, in other parts of the world they are commonly eaten. And in pre-agrarian cultures all over the northern hemisphere Hazelnuts were central to our diet as a nutrient rich flour source. These and Oak acorns made up the bulk of our ancestor’s diet. Hazels were also seen as wily magical beings, their strong flexible stalks being ritually used for wands and for dowsing. The “Z’ in the middle of their name is characteristic of their dynamic spirit.
In our area of the world we get a “good nut year” about one in four. Unfortunately there is a very common parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in the newly forming Beaked hazel nut and in a poor pollination year almost all of the developing nuts get used as nurseries for the parasite. The larvae develops and matures with the nut. If the nuts are left to ripen the worm eventually eats most of it then eats its way out. So the trick is to harvest them a little early “green” and you can still get most of the nut. This is also the best way to beat the squirrels to them. Unlike ourselves, who have to open the somewhat prickly bracts of the nut to see if it’s a good one, they can just smell if its a good ripe nut or not. A First Nations method for gathering the nut uses this innate skill of the squirrels. It is said that they would set the young hunters to carefully watch and follow the squirrels to their hiding spots and then clean out the cache of well selected nuts.
Fortunately, the domestic Filbert Hazel does not seem to be hit by the parasite. So I keep planting them. Over about twenty five years I’ve gotten most of my planting stalk from Golden Bough nursery. Of what I’ve planted about half seem to do well. I think mostly it’s lack of soil depth and or moisture that has led to some dying or doing poorly. When trees are in the wrong spot nothing you do will make them grow well. They have male and female flowers but to produce they need to be cross pollinated, so it’s good to plant at least a few. They can also cross with the wild ones that are common, but some seasons I think their timing is off.
Sometimes I’ve just left the Hazels to their own devices and they’ve turned into a multi-stalked thicket. Other times I’ve cut the suckers as they come and left a central stalk. Both have produced in a good year. Now, following the path of least resistance, I mostly thin out the smaller shoots every couple years and leave several main stalks. Compost, mulch and even watering if we get an early dry period, will definitely help with production in the early years.
While Witch Hazel is the most well known for its medicinal value Hazelnut also has many similar traditional uses. Like its cousin it is astringent and antiseptic and antibacterial. So the bark can be decocted and used for cuts, sunburns, poison ivy and even as a skin toner. Apparently the prickly hairs on the hulls were used by First Nations folks to expel worms. The oil of the nut itself is also said to be antioxidant and excellent for lowering cholesterol.
Here’s to reclaiming the Hazel for building, craft, medicine and as one of our daily foods.