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Tree 5: Hazel

Latin name: Corylus avellana
Family: Betulaceae
Origin: Native to Britain, much of Europe, parts of N Africa and western Asia
Height: 12 – 15 metres
Lifespan: 80 years (but 800+ years if regularly coppiced)
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The Hazel grows as a small tree or shrub and is very common in Ash, Birch and Oak woodlands.

The bark is smooth, grey-brown peeling with age. Leaf buds are oval, blunt and hairy. The heart-shaped leaves are finely serrated, round in shape and soft to the touch due to the downy hairs on their underside. The distinctive long yellow male catkins appear from mid-February, before the leaves appear.

The tiny female flowers develop into oval fruits, hanging in groups of one to four. In September to October the fruits mature into hazelnuts (also called ‘cobnuts’) with woody shells surrounded by a cup of leafy bracts. The nuts are important for invertebrates and for many vertebrates such as Squirrels and Corvids, Dormice, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers.

We know that early man stored and carried hazelnuts for food. They are eaten raw or roasted and are rich in protein and minerals. Mature trees can yield up to 10 kgs (25lbs) of nuts.

Hazel has long been coppiced, producing flexible straight poles used to produce very many different products, from walking sticks to baskets. It also used to be coppiced to produce charcoal.

There is much folklore associated with hazels. “The air surrounding hazel trees is said to be magically charged with the quicksilver energy of exhilaration and inspiration.” A Celtic myth tells how hazelnuts fell from trees growing around a pool and were eaten by salmon swimming below. Fionn Cumhaill, a hero of Irish mythology, ate the salmon and absorbed the salmon’s magical knowledge. The old belief that hazelnuts provided bite-sized wisdom is the source of the phrase ‘in a nutshell’.

The ancient belief in its protective qualities made a hazel staff the choice for pilgrims and shepherds. Magic wands were fashioned from hazel: to make an all-purpose wand from a straight twig, charge it under the full moon and use it to direct energy in your work. Forked branches of hazel are still used for dowsing – a technique some people believe can reveal water and other features underground.