Hazel – Corylus Avellana
Hazel is a native species closely related to Birch, Alder and Hornbeam. It can grow into a small tree, but is more often found pruned or coppiced into a bush. At this time of year, it is easy to identify by its male flowers, the “lambs’ tails” catkins which start to open from around mid-January, long before the leaves come out. Female flowers are borne on the same bush but are much less obvious and far fewer. Look carefully along the twigs for tiny red tufts emerging from swollen buds, waiting to receive clouds of pollen from the male catkins.
There are Hazel bushes dotted about all over the reserve, but particularly good places to look for them are around the Dragon Stones, along the Butterfly Walk and on the path below the Bund steps. The flowering period varies from bush to bush, but each one normally has catkins at several different stages, so that whenever a female flower opens, it has a good chance of being cross-pollinated from a neighbouring bush.
Fertilised female flowers produce clusters of nuts surrounded by frilly bracts. In the North of England, wild Hazel tends not to produce many fully developed nuts, but you can usually find one or two with small, sweet kernels from as early as August if the grey squirrels haven’t got to them first.
The leaves are alternate, oval to heart-shaped, fairly broad and slightly fuzzy. By the time the mid-green of summer turns to autumn yellow, new catkins are already well developed and waiting for spring.
Most of the Hazel on the St Nicks reserve is coppiced in rotation to keep it growing strongly in bush form and to provide long, supple twigs for craft work.
The botanical name Corylus is simply the Latin word for “hazel bush”, though it’s derived from a Greek word meaning “helmet”, apparently referring to the appearance of the nuts. Avellana means coming from Avella, an area of Italy noted in Roman times for its fruit and nut crops – but Hazel was growing in Britain long before the Romans arrived. The Celts regarded it as a sacred tree, associated with wisdom and valued for its protective qualities. The use of Hazel nuts in Hallowe’en fortune-telling has probably died out, but the twigs are still thought to be useful for water-divining.