While many people might be familiar with store bought European hazelnuts, or the popular spread Nutella which is made from hazelnuts and chocolate, the American hazelnut is also a tasty treat if you are lucky enough to beat the birds and other critters to it! The ½” edible nuts ripen in the fall, but the flowers typically bloom in April.
Also called the American filbert, American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is a large, thicket forming native shrub (also sometimes considered a small tree). Hazelnut grows at a medium to fast rate, anywhere from 1-2 feet or more per year, reaching 8-12 feet at maturity. They grow in a variety of conditions, from sun to part shade and thrive in well-drained soils. Great for wildlife and wild-breaks, hazelnuts can also be planted in your backyard as an edible landscape plant.
Since they are a ‘thicket forming’ shrub – they tend to be multi-stemmed with an open, wide-spreading shape – so they are not necessarily a good fit for a neatly manicured landscape. (Although you can prune them to a single stem for a tree form rather than their natural shrubby appearance if you really want – that is what they do when they grow them as a crop in fields). Hazelnuts work best in more natural landscape styles were they will have room to grow. They provide a great mid-height layer to transition from the edge of your yard to the woods beyond and to provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife.
Hardy to zone 4, American Hazelnut is native in the Adirondacks as well as much of the east coast. We also have another native hazelnut, the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. cornuta), which is similar in habit and growing conditions but tends to be smaller in size and has smaller nuts. Also, the husks of beaked hazelnut have an extended tubular, beak-like shape, hence its common name.
American hazelnuts begin to produce fruit at 3-4 years old, with mature fruit set by 7-8 years. The fruit is ripe when the husks turn brown. However unlike European hazelnuts which fall to the ground when ripe, American hazelnuts stay on the tree. Their habit of staying on the tree and their small size means they are not a commercially viable crop like their European relative. Since they produce less and it is harder to harvest. However, they are still a great choice for landscaping and providing a tasty treat for yourself or the local wildlife.
If you would like to eat your hazelnuts, you will have to keep a close eye on when they ripen to beat the birds or other critters to your nuts. Just how much fruit a hazelnut can be expected to produce widely varies – with different sources listing anywhere from 10-15 lbs to 4-12 lbs per tree per year. But no matter how many nuts you end up with, hazelnuts are very nutritious. They are a good source of calcium, potassium, iron and dietary fiber as well as several vitamins including B1, B2, B6 and E. Hazelnuts are also a source of monounsaturated fats – the ‘good fat’.
Now – why am I writing about hazelnuts in April instead of the fall when their fruit ripens in the fall? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Hazelnuts bloom very early in the spring. They have both male and female flowers on the same plant but the flowers are separate and very different looking. The male flowers are long catkins in clusters of 2-3. They actually appear in the fall but don’t open until the spring. The female flowers are very tiny. Bright red stigma and styles protrude from a small, scaly bud in order to catch the pollen blown by the wind from the nearby catkins. If you are out for a walk, you might very well notice the catkins If you do, go take a closer look at the branches. If you are lucky, upon closer inspection, you might find some female flowers. For being so tiny, they are quite lovely. Especially this time of year when any bloom is a treat to be treasured!
When used in landscaping, there seems to be some confusion over whether or not you need more than one hazelnut to get nuts. Since hazelnuts are monecious (have both male and female flowers on the same plant) and are pollinated by the wind, they are self-fertile. This means you don’t need more than one plant to get nuts. However, it appears that pollination might sometimes be weak, and they often seem to benefit from multiple shrubs in order to increase pollination and fruit set. So, if you have the space, it seems your best bet is to plant a few to be on the safe side.
Photos, from above: American Hazelnut in bloom (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service); Female Hazelnut flower; and Male and Female Hazelnut flowers (Photos by Emily DeBolt).