The holiday season is upon us again and familiar goodies abound on store shelves. Mixed nuts have always been a favorite of mine ever since I was a kid. I always enjoyed cracking them and extracting the sweet meat. Pecans, English walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts and hazelnuts suddenly appear in the produce section.
I love them all, but the hazelnuts are probably my favorite. Wild ones were hardy in the cooler climates where I was raised. Since I spent much of my free time in the woods, I soon scoped out several small thickets of them. These were great spots to flush a grouse or two.
Two species are common throughout North America. The American hazelnut, rare in the lower coastal plain, is larger and more similar to the domestic filbert. Beaked hazelnuts, found in the mountains of North Carolina, have still smaller fruits. Both of these birch relatives thrive in a variety of environments but fruit better if exposed to sun.
Called filberts by many, nuts from the American hazelnut are light brown and acorn-like. They are half to three quarters of an inch long and slightly wider. Two leafy coarsely toothed husk-like bracts enclose the shells.
In Eastern North America, hazelnuts have not been commercially successful. This is largely due to a disease called eastern filbert blight, a fungus disease which invades the twigs and eventually kills the plant. The native hazels are resistant, some are even immune to this disease.
Susceptible European types are the ones favored for the table. They have larger nuts and thinner shells but are adapted to drier areas, such as eastern Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Some are also raised in parts of the upper Midwest.
Hazelnuts make attractive naturalizing landscaping. Ruffled doubly toothed oval leaves turn orange to red or purple in the fall. Trees are small and seldom grow taller than 12 to 14 feet. Some cultivars are even shorter. One ornamental cultivar called the Harry Lauder’s walking stick has twisted branches and is very attractive in winter.
Male and female flowers are separate, but both reside on every plant. Flowers bloom in early spring, but are not overly showy. Sometimes a late frost can kill the young fruits. Nuts ripen in October but can be kept for long periods.
Some people confuse hazelnuts with chestnuts. However, chestnuts are larger, shinier and don’t rattle when you shake them. The trees look nothing alike and are not closely related.
The beaked hazelnut is the species I have collected most from the wild. Nuts are much smaller than the commercial filbert. Shells are slightly thicker. I think the taste is a little sweeter. Long beak-like husks cover the shells, hence the name. One problem I encountered was that the squirrels, jays and crows harvested them before they were completely ripe.
Blue jays and squirrels are the major thieves to both species of hazelnuts. However, if attracting wildlife is part of your reason for planting them it’s not a problem. You can always buy some at the store.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.