Thursday, July 11, 2013

Roadside Weeds: Hazelnut

Wild foods are abundant and easily found in West Virginia, and indeed throughout the Appalachians. Today's story is a prime example. When I stopped to take photos of wildflowers for this blog the other day, I found a hazelnut bush growing right behind the flowers.

Wild hazelnuts (or filberts) bear exactly the same nut as the cultivated variety, although the wild ones are usually smaller. The nuts are born in clusters on the end of branches; hazel blooms in late winter to very early spring with male and female flowers on the same plant. The nut clusters are called burrs and the best way to pick them is to pick the whole burr and get the nuts out later.

We used to have many hazelnut thickets on our land because we when bought this place the land, which had formerly been pasture, was overgrown with brush like blackberries, wild plums, hazelnuts, etc. All perfect for the wild food forager! As time passed, the trees grew taller and shaded out the lower-growing brush, so we have only a few places where the hazelnuts still grow. I have not harvested any in years,  but I like knowing they're out there for the wildlife. I might have to get some this year, as the patch by the road reminded me of the fine taste of these nuts.

Hazelwood has a long history in folklore. The early Celts believed it to be a magical wood holding wisdom. One story tells that nine varieties of hazel grew around a pool; as the nuts dropped into the water they were eaten by the trout, and thus the trouts also gained wisdom--the number of spots on the trout indicating how many nuts they'd eaten (1). If getting wisdom were only so easy!

The Irish hero Finn Mac Cumhail, or Finn MacCool as he is also called, is said to to have accidentally eaten some of the Salmon of Knowledge when he was cooking the fish for the old Druid with whom the child Finn was living. A bubble of oil on the fish burst, splashing Finn's fingers. He instinctively put his fingers in his mouth, and that action transferred the wisdom of the salmon to Finn--wisdom he used many times in his career (2).

In the story of King Arthur's Cave (3), a hazel stick is said to be able to be used as a witching stick to find gold beneath the ground, just as many use a peach branch to divine or witch for water (I've tried this myself and watched in amazement as the forked peach stick was pulled to the ground). Hazel staffs were a favorite of the Druids and for simpler folk as a walking stick (4). Most of the hazel in my area is too small for such uses, growing more as a small shrub and not as a tree. Thin hazel branches can be used to weave wattle fences, and hazel is also believed to offer protection from venomous snakes, according to a Grimm's fairy tale (5).


One afternoon the Christ-child had laid himself in his 
cradlebed and had fallen asleep. Then his mother came to him, looked 
at him full of gladness, and said, “Hast thou laid thyself down to
sleep, my child? Sleep sweetly, and in the meantime I will go into
the wood, and fetch thee a handful of strawberries, for I know that
thou wilt be pleased with them when thou awakest.” In the wood
outside, she found a spot with the most beautiful strawberries; but
as she was stooping down to gather one, an adder sprang up out of
the grass. She was alarmed, left the strawberries where they were,
and hastened away. The adder darted after her; but Our Lady, as
you can readily understand, knew what it was best to do. She hid
herself behind a hazel bush, and stood there until the adder had
crept away again.

Then she gathered the strawberries, and as she set out on her way
home she said, “As the hazel bush has been my protection this
time, it shall in future protect others also.” Therefore, from the
most remote times, a green hazel branch has been the safest
protection against adders, snakes, and everything else which 
creeps upon the earth.

Today the hazelnut is a humble shrub growing where it can along the edges of fields and roads. It is sad, isn't it, to see a shrub with such an illustrious past reduced to such circumstances. I think I might have to dig a start in the spring and see if I can give this plant a respectable home in my garden. Maybe some of its magic will rub off on me in the process. I can hope, anyway.

1) From Trees for Life
2) From Encyclopedia Mythica
3) Griffis, William. King Arthur's Cave, in Welsh Fairy Tales
4) From Growing Hazelnuts in Food Skills for Self-Sufficiency
5) Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm. The Hazel Branch.

Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Rob Hunt said...

I love your stories this post on Hazelnuts is a good way to start my Day Thanks! Happy Thursday!

Michelle said...

I do love this story. We actually have a tall Hazelnut tree that a previous owner planted years ago. It has not produced and a friend told me it needed a "mate" to pollinate with.

Nance said...

I don't know that we have hazel nut trees but I've been in picking the wild black raspberries. I've got the poison ivy and bug bites to prove it. I enjoy your stories too!

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