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Hazel thicket (foreground) with catkins, Alexandra Park, Hastings

Going nuts about Hazel

Tree correspondent Joan Taylor-Rowan, in her fifth exploration of Hastings tree life, falls in love with the humble but ever-giving hazel.

Latin name: Corylus avellana
Common name: Common hazel, hazel
Location: Alexandra Park Hastings, Church Wood, scrubland under oak and ash trees

With storms raging and seas surging – it’s hard to believe that Spring will soon be with us, but walk in Guestling Wood or Alexandra Park and you’ll see the yellow catkins of hazel trees waving frantically in the wind as if to say, we’re here and we’re ready!

Male and female flowers on same tree – monoecious

Hazel relies on wind-pollination. Although male and female flowers grow on the same tree (monoecious), pollen from the male catkins on one hazel tree must be dispersed to female flowers on a different hazel tree. So, a good February blow, while a pain if you’ve just been to the hairdresser, is perfect for spreading pollen.

Once pollinated, the female flower produces a cluster of nuts that ripen in the autumn – and who doesn’t love a hazel nut? Without the sweet meat of the hazel to add to its confections, the Belgian chocolate-making industry would surely collapse! No more Ferrero Rochers, no more Nutella – just the thought of it makes me come over all wobbly. But I’m not the only hazelnut lover, dormice and squirrels love them too. Even the jay, who is an acorn scoffer, is partial to a hazel nut. And how beautiful they are! Each tawny striped case crafted like a piece of exquisite carpentry.

So, how would you identify the hazel, without the catkins? Most hazel we see is coppiced. It appears as a clump of spindly branches about 2–3 m in height, spreading outwards from a central stump. In the UK, it’s mostly an understory, found amongst oak and ash forests.

Hazel thicket (foreground) with catkins, Alexandra Park, Hastings

In spring, the bright green leaves begin to unfold. Rounded with a pointed end and toothed edges, they are softly hairy underneath with a red tinge on top and a crumpled appearance. In Autumn they turn a deep yellow.  Take note: the alder tree also bears catkins and can be confused with hazel, but the female flowers of the alder resemble small, knobbly cones and stay on the tree all year. In spring, you’ll notice that alder leaves are indented at the top and shiny, unlike hazel.

Hazel is an exceptionally useful tree for both humans and animals and, once coppiced, can live for 200 years. Coppicing – cutting the main trunk to encourage sprouting of side branches – allows more light onto the forest floor enabling a host of spring flowers to bloom, including wood anemones, bluebells and wild violets. These, in turn, encourage insects and butterflies.

Female hazel flower – close-up

The thin branches have been used for centuries for construction. Because it is highly flexible and can be twisted and knotted, hazel was used to make fish traps, stakes for hedging and U-shaped thatching spars. The wattles used for wattle and daub were traditionally coppiced hazel.  It was also burned to make charcoal for gunpowder and drawing chalks.

As well as these highly practical uses, it also had magical associations. Hazel branches were chosen for water divining and for making witches’ wands. In Ireland the same hazel rods were used to root out thieves. For the Druids, hazel was a magical tree, a tree of wisdom – the nut representing a store of hidden knowledge. Hazel also offered protection against evil forces -horses sported collars of woven hazel to protect against wicked faeries. St Patrick, according to legend, cast the snakes out of Ireland with a rod of hazel. If you were after prophetic powers then a brew of hazel bark was recommended. In traditional medicine, all parts of the tree were useful: sap to treat ringworm, leaf infusions as a blood purifier, and the pollen to treat epilepsy.

Male catkins

The Irish, seem to have held the tree in particularly high regard and it crops up regularly in stories. My favourite is the tale of “the salmon of wisdom”. It’s said that there existed a Well of Wisdom surrounded by nine hazel trees. In this well, lived a mighty salmon that devoured the hazelnuts that fell into the well. This coveted salmon was eventually hooked by a wise poet who gave it to his servant to cook, with strict instructions not to eat any of it. However, the servant burned his thumb on the hot juice and instinctively sucked the seared skin, thereby transferring the salmon’s wisdom to himself. The servant was Fionn MacCumhaill (which means son of the hazel), sometimes known as Finn McCool, who went on to become one of Ireland’s most famous heroes.

Cultivated hazelnuts are sometimes known as Filberts, and take their name from St Philibert’s Day on 20 August, the date when ripening is said to begin. September 14th was traditionally given as a school holiday for children to go nutting, a custom which persisted in England right up to the first world war – an indication of the extent to which foraging was still an important part of everyday rural life. The Kent cob nut is still a much-prized crop to culinary hipsters, although most of the hazelnuts we eat now are imported.

These days, coppiced hazel is recognised as an excellent way of managing woodland for wildlife. In the Hastings area, you will find examples of coppiced hazel in Guestling Wood and in Church and Robsack Woods, as well as individual trees in Alexandra Park. Well-managed coppicing of hazel has been instrumental in luring back the sublime nightingale, a bird that used to be synonymous with old woodland. So, make a trip to the woods in early May or June, and if you are quiet and patient – you may be lucky enough to hear one of these exquisite and rare songsters in a thicket of coppiced hazel.

Read more of Joan Taylor Rowan’s tree guides here.


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Posted 20:41 Wednesday, Feb 23, 2022 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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