A Tree for the Wise
By Jonathan Diaper
For me, the harbinger of spring is the sight of waving catkins of hazel. The word ‘catkin’ derives from the Dutch word katteken meaning ‘kitten’ and nicely describes their furry appearance. These are yellow hanging bunches of around 240 individual male flowers which catch the wind to pollinate tiny female flowers – bud-like, magenta coloured flowers on the same branch. Hazels are monoecious – each tree bears both male and female flowers. Despite being wind pollinated, hazels provide an invaluable source of early pollen for bees.
Corylus avellana, our native hazel, has been revered since prehistoric times. The flexible young wood was invaluable as a building material, shaped into wattle screens, that were skeletons in the walls of ‘wattle and daub’ buildings. U-shaped pins of hazel held thatching to roofs. The wood was believed to hold supernatural qualities and the tree and nuts were thought to bestow wisdom. Forked branches of hazel wood were said to sense the presence of water and used as divining rods for dowsing.
The hazel was mythologised throughout Europe, strongly in British and Irish folklore and Norse mythology. The ancient Romans loved to eat them (the latin name avellana derives from the Italian town of Avella where hazelnuts were and still are farmed) and through its use in staking grapevines associated the hazel with the god Bacchus. Animals caught nibbling the vines were roasted on skewers of hazel wood.
The Celts revered the hazel as the tree of knowledge. An ancient Irish tale retells that nine hazel trees grew around a sacred pool. As they dropped nuts into the water salmon swallowed them and absorbed the wisdom they contained. The bright spots on the bodies of the fish were said to reveal how many nuts they had eaten.
Stories abound, but there are many grave sites across Europe, in pre-Christian and early Christian burials, where hazel rods have been placed beside or lain across the body, as if to protect the occupant of the grave. Archaeologists are uncertain about the reason for this practice.
Sacred pools, or not, the hazel is a great plant for the garden. It is best treated as a large shrub, older stems coppiced to keep it in shape and allow light to fall on the younger stems. These flexible young stems make ideal plant supports, disappearing magically amongst the growth of perennials. The young shoots of hazel grow quickly, making it an ideal addition to a mixed hedgerow. A clump of hazel makes a good screen for unattractive garden fixtures like water butts or compost heaps, and yet sunlight will filter through the light green leaves; these contrast very well with the dark glossy leaves of evergreens, such as holly. Hazels are not fussy about soil, so long as the ground is well drained. They turn a shady corner of the garden into a haven for wildlife.
If you wish to harvest hazelnuts then you will need to grow cultivated hazels known as filberts (named after Saint Philibert whose feast day is 20th August, when hazelnuts begin to ripen). Many varieties are available, so it is best to consult a specialist nursery for advice. You will, of course, need to protect the plants from varmints. Grey squirrels and deer have seriously diminished the self-regeneration of hazel trees in our woodlands.
We should return that wisdom and help the hazel thrive.