In Praise of American Hazelnut, Corylus americana

As you probably know, we Reedy Creekers take our native plants seriously.  Bill Shanabruch – watershed resident, RCC member, and native plant enthusiast – shares his thoughts on the American hazelnut.   

Corylus Americana (American hazelnut) has become one of my favorite plants over the last couple of years.  Perhaps it is because I see two of these remarkable shrubs/small trees every day when I look out our dining room window.  But I think it has more to do with the subtle and changing beauty of this plant as it goes through the seasons.  Recently, I was stunned at the remarkable change that occurred after one day of warm weather on February 7.  The male catkins which formed last September had suddenly doubled in length and started to turn from green to yellow.  This is a sure sign that the female flowers will open very soon.

February - Elongating male catkins
February – Elongating male catkins
Male catkins - close up
Male catkins – close up

What other native plant do you know that flowers in mid-February?  Ok – skunk cabbage for one; but there are not many.  It turns out that you almost need a magnifying glass to appreciate the little red female flowers produced by American hazelnut.  There is no big show of color because American hazelnut is not dependent on insects for pollination.  No need to attract bees or butterflies or beetles or hummingbirds.  American hazelnut uses the winter wind for pollination.  And that brings us back to those male catkins that are changing shape and color.  They are currently preparing to disperse pollen to the wind.  In another week or so, one will be able to gently tap a catkin and see a little puff of yellow pollen released.  That is the time to look closely for the tiny red flowers that will be open and waiting for the wind to perform its magic.

After another couple of weeks, the catkins will turn brown and eventually fall to the ground – mission accomplished.  Then it’s time for the leaves to appear.  The young leaves provide a welcome splash of red before they turn dark green.  In a mild winter, the ensuing spring may bring hordes of inch worms and other caterpillars that seem to love chomping hazelnut leaves.  In some springs, the hazelnuts become almost completely defoliated.  That’s good news to the birds that are feeding their nestlings with caterpillars.  And somehow, the hazelnuts just seem to shrug it off.  By early summer, they look as healthy as ever.  That’s one of the other reasons I love hazelnuts – they seem to be very forgiving and almost indestructible.  Sun, shade, drought, wet summer, clay soil, organic soil – nothing seems to matter very much.  The cockroach among Virginia’s native plants?

August - Developing hazelnuts
August – Developing hazelnuts
Developing hazelnuts - close up
Developing hazelnuts – close up
Nearly mature hazelnuts in early September.
Nearly mature hazelnuts in early September.

By midsummer, it becomes readily apparent that the February mission of the catkins and little red flowers was successful.  The first clusters of developing hazelnuts become apparent and the dog days of summer can be spent watching their progress.  By September, one can see a trace of the mature brown nut through the yellow cover encasing each hazelnut.  American hazelnuts are quite edible; but they are smaller than their European cousins that are grown commercially.  And good luck getting to them before the squirrels!!  By the middle of September, we see little piles of hazelnut shells all over their favorite perches in our backard – porch steps, bench, lawn chairs, anywhere off the ground with a better chance to see and avoid predators.

While one is watching the development of the hazelnuts, it is easy to miss the early formation of the male catkins hidden amidst the foliage.  By the time the hazelnuts are mature, the next generation of male catkins are already about one-inch long.  But they will remain hidden for another two months or so while the leaves turn color and become the focal point.  Eventually the leaves fall, and at last, the catkins are the star of the hazelnut show throughout the winter.

Fall color
Hazelnuts in early November. There are two plants showing a little genetic variation. The plant on the right always changes color about two weeks before the plant on the left.



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