The Vigorous Growing Hazel Tree
The hazel may be one of our smallest native trees, but it has had an important role to play in the history of woodland management. Apart from its value as wood, it also has – according to Celtic folklore – magical properties.
The hazel grows as a small native tree in the shade of woods and in hedgerows. In old neglected coppices it throws straggling limbs from old stools and is rarely able to form the single trunk to give it the status of a tree.
Yet it is an important tree, in the fossilized pollen records preserved in peat which are our guide to the earliest native plants after the Ice Age, hazel predominates over much of the British Isles-appearing at much the same time as the initial spread of other wind-pollinated trees such as alder, willow and birch. Remains of hazel nut shells have been found at the foot of peat deposits, suggesting that the early Stone Age hunters were probably at least partly dependent on the nuts for food, in the absence of any sort of cereal.
Since hazel is associated with man’s earliest ancestors, it is perhaps not surprising that in Celtic folklore, it was known as the tree of knowledge, and was supposed to have many magic properties. Irish aches and pains caused by the damp climate or elfin malevolence were thought to be warded off by a hazel nut carried in the pocket. A double hazel nut was said to cure toothache in Devon, and defend against witches in Scotland. Hazel is one of the magic trees of May Day, like hawthorn in England and rowan in Scotland: these are the three trees of white magic that oppose the forces of evil which many people thought were present in the woods. In 1956 there were more than 16,000 acres of hazel coppice, little of which was used. Since then the coppiced areas have dwindled as foresters have gradually turned them over to conifer production. For truly wild hazel trees you must go to the Lake District, the Western Highlands or the Bun-en in County Clare. Ireland. You can see coppiced hazel in Hatfield Forest, the Sussex Weald and in Cranborne Chase in Dorset and Wiltshire.
The hazel belongs to the same family as the hornbeam, which has more scaly catkins and winged nutlets. The hazel leaf is a dense, deep green colour which turns to brown then yellow-gold towards the end of the year. Hazel bark is shiny, brownish grey with horizontal pores (lenticels) which enable the tree to breathe.
The brownish-yellow male catkins begin to develop in autumn: early the following spring they open to a creamy yellow colour. The female catkins are small and brown with bright crimson styles and they generally ripen after the male catkins of the same tree, a mechanism which usually prevents self-pollination. Like all catkin-bearing trees, the hazel is wind-pollinated.
There are between one and four, and occasionally five, hard-shelled nuts on each stalk. They are pale green in summer, but by autumn have turned to a warm, soft brown colour. Each nut is enclosed in a pair of downy husks or bracts with deep scallops. Many children’s fairy stories show pixies wearing hats of a similar style.
Birds, especially pigeons and pheasants, and small mammals such as squirrels and mice, take the nuts for food and bury them. This is one way the trees become dispersed. You can grow the hazel in your garden either from a seed or from a sapling. For your own trees to produce nuts you will need at least two trees to ensure cross-pollination because the species is naturally self-sterile (ie the tree cannot fertilise itself). A hazel tree produces nuts in abundance from six years old. There are several varieties available, including Pendula which makes a standard tree with a trunk of at least 1.5m (5ft).
Selective breeding of the hazel in the 19th century produced the large Kentish cob nut which is redder and rounder than the wild nut. The more oval filbert nuts come from a different species, Corylus maxima. It is thought they originated in France and were named after Saint Philbert.
The management of hazel woods dates back to the late Stone Age. The tough straight poles produced by coppicing the tree are still used today inand as bean and pea sticks and small stakes. The rod used by a diviner to detect the source of water is often made of hazel. In the days of open field farming, split green hazel poles were woven into hurdles to fence in pigs, cattle and sheep to stop them eating the crops on adjoining land. The tree also produced the wattles for wattle-and-daub building as well as the spurs used in thatching. The brushwood was bundled into faggots that were used for the weekly firing of bread ovens.