Several years ago, I received three little hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don’t recall actually ordering them, but there they were in the mail one day. I planted them and waited to see the results. A couple years later, three more hazelnuts showed up in my mailbox. Those, too, went into the ground. Over the years they’ve moved about the yard (not under their own steam), finally coming to rest along the southwestern boundary. Every summer and fall I look at the four remaining shrubs and ask “where are the nuts?” No answer has been forthcoming.
So recently I went on-line to see if I could find out any further information about hazelnuts. Where are they native? What do the flowers look like? How do they pollinate and produce nuts? The Arbor Day Foundation was a good source of info, and it should be, considering it has been in the hazelnut business for several years, trying to produce a hybrid hazelnut that will thrive throughout the United States, whereas the native species were historically only found in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, and into the prairies.
The reasons for promoting hazelnuts are many fold: the nuts are edible and extremely healthy for people (high in protein and antioxidants, loaded with good fats); the nuts and shrubs are sought by wildlife (food and shelter); the plants are great for controlling soil erosion and acting as biofilters along riparian corridors; the oil has high potential as a biofuel (surpassing soybeans in many areas); and the nuts are also potential feed for livestock. What’s not to like about them?
North America is home to two species of native hazelnut: the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) and the beaked hazelnut (C.cornuta). Both can be found in the Adirondacks, although the former seems to keep to the southeastern parts of the Park (Warren, Washington, Fulton and Saratoga counties). I’ve never encountered an American hazelnut, but a couple years ago I did stumble upon a beaked hazelnut while bushwhacking through the woods.
Hazelnuts are understory trees, which means they don’t grow terribly large. They are also rather non-descript trees, with no fancy bark, foliage or crazy growth pattern that makes them stand out from the general “tree-ness” of the forest.
The nuts of the beaked variety, however, are funny-looking things, with a strangely shaped fuzzy fruit (see photo). I’d be more inclined to call them “beakers” than “beaked”, for the overall shape of the growing nut is kind of like a round-bottomed beaker you’d find in a mad scientist’s lab. American hazelnuts, on the other hand, are enclosed in two leafy, coarsely toothed bracts, looking to me somewhat like the fruits that grow on my hop vines.
According to a friend of mine who knows the locations of several hazelnuts near Long Lake, the bears get the nuts before he has a chance to find any that are ripe. This is not surprising, for bears, and many other native critters, are big fans of mast-producing trees (mast is a term used to describe large, hard-shelled fruits, like acorns, beechnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts…). Beech trees used to be one of the biggest mast producers in the Park, but with the arrival of beech-scale disease, beechnut production has started to decline. There are few other nut producers in the central Adirondacks, so when the hazelnuts are ripe, the bears, deer, squirrels, turkeys, woodpeckers and blue jays are first on the scene to take advantage of this largess.
Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are monoecious, meaning that each plant has both male and female flowers. The male flowers are drooping catkins, like those found on their birch tree cousins. The female flowers are described as much less obvious, although I’ve seen photographs of beaked hazelnut’s pistillate flowers and they are quite attractive, with magenta pistils stretching out like the green top of a pineapple (did you know that pineapples are bromeliads?). The male, or staminate, flowers appear in the fall, producing a catkin-filled plant that decorates the winter landscape. They don’t produce pollen, however, until the following spring, when the female flowers open and are ready for fertilization. Then the fate of their mating is left to the wind. The plants cannot fertilize themselves, so other hazelnuts must be nearby to provide stud service. All of this happens before the leaves appear on the tree, which makes complete sense: if the flowers are pollinated by the wind, leaves will only get in the way of reproductive success.
You can be sure that this spring I will be out in my yard, with a hand lens if necessary, to see if I can find any female flowers on my hazelnuts. I don’t ever expect a huge crop, but I’d like to have at least a nut or two some time. I suspect the wildlife will get any nuts before I do, but I’d sure like to see some on these plants, whether I get to eat them or not.