If I had to choose a favorite wild edible, it would be the hazelnut. Rich in protein, fat, and flavor, hazelnuts make a satisfying snack, and can be used in cooking wherever you would use their commercially available counterparts (called filberts or hazelnuts). The two species native to North America are the American hazel (Corylus americana) and beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta). Both are common shrubs, and if you find a few specimens that produce well, foraging for hazelnuts is as easy as going to the grocery store. Read on, and you will learn how to identify and where to look for wild hazelnuts.
General description of American hazel and beaked hazel
With good sun exposure, both American and beaked hazel grow as multi-stemmed shrubs that reach about 12 feet here in central New England. I have read that beaked hazel can grow to 25 feet, but perhaps that is in the more southerly portions of its range, because I’ve yet to see one reach anywhere near that height, here. In full sun, both species grow as large, dense, roundish shrubs, but in the shade they are often small and spindly. Such specimens are extremely common in the forest understory in my neck of the woods, but they do not produce many nuts.
It is said that beaked and American hazels occasionally grow as single stemmed trees, but I have never seen one grow like that in the wild. (In contrast, most Corylus species used for commercial production of hazelnuts usually do grow as trees.)
Hazelnut twigs and flowers
While the leaves make identification a lot easier, it’s fun to try to find these shrubs in winter and early spring, before they leaf out. Both species have brownish-gray twigs that don’t immediately stand out from other shrubs, but the catkins (male flowers) can be easily recognized in winter, well before leaf out.
You can even use the catkins to distinguish between American and beaked hazel, for those of the former species are borne on little stalks (as in my photo) while those of the beaked hazel are sessile (attached directly to the twig, with no connecting stalk). In winter, the brown catkins are small and tight, sometimes no more than an inch long. In early spring, the catkins release pollen as they grow to several inches in length.
The tiny, red, fringe-like female flowers bloom in early spring, by mid-April here in Massachusetts. They are so inconspicuous that few people ever notice them unless a botanist points them out. But tiny plant structures fascinate me, so I wait for these little jewels every spring, and that’s when anticipation of the year’s hazelnut harvest begins for me. The flowers of American hazel and beaked hazel are virtually identical, as far as I know. At least, I cannot distinguish between them with the naked eye.
Hazels need good sun exposure to bloom well, and because blooming is necessary for nut production, those in sunny spots will be more productive. Pollination is also necessary for nut production. Both Corylus americana and Corylus cornuta are pollinated by wind, and require cross pollination to produce fruit.
The toothed, oval leaves are alternately arranged on the twig. The leaves of Corylus americana are shown in the photo, and those of Corylus cornuta are almost identical. Note that in the photo, taken in August, you can see small, tight, green catkins. These will become the male flowers which will shed pollen next year. By August, the current year’s catkins have long since shed their pollen, and most of them have fallen off.
The nuts of American hazel and beaked hazel
Each nut is wrapped in a modified leaf called an involucre. These leafy green wrappings make the nuts very difficult to see, and it doesn’t help that they tend to be hidden under leaves. But it’s a little easier if you know what you’re looking for.
American hazel involucres have fringed edges which can be pried apart once the nut plumps out. The nuts can grow singly or in clusters of up to about 12. Beaked hazel involucres are covered with pinchy fuzz and taper into a long, beak-like end. Beaked hazelnuts typically grow singly or in clusters: up to 11 according to my reading, but I haven’t seen clusters of more than 3.
Both American and beaked hazelnuts are smaller than commercially produced European hazelnuts. That’s why the native American species are not usually grown commercially – people prefer the larger European nuts. But I think wild American hazelnuts taste better. They are slightly sweeter and milder in flavor.
Where to forage for hazelnuts
First, you need to know if they grow in your area. American hazel ranges over most of eastern North America. Beaked hazel ranges from the southern half of Canada to the northern half of the US, generally, but also extends down into Georgia and Alabama. These widely ranging shrubs are said to be tolerant of many soil types, as long as drainage is good. But in my experience, they are not even that picky about drainage, for the most productive individuals I’ve found of either species grow at wetland edges.
Once you know you are foraging within the range of one or both species, and you have learned the basics of identification, the key is to find bushes that produce a lot of nuts. You’ll find the best producers growing in sun exposed clumps.
Why good sun exposure? Because sunlight helps them bloom more profusely. Since fertilized female flowers develop into nuts, more flowers mean more nuts.
Why clumps? Remember that hazel flowers are pollinated by wind, which does not reliably deliver pollen from one individual to a far away neighbor. Those growing in clumps, on the other hand, can be easily pollinated by close neighbors.
So remember: look for highly productive bushes growing clumps in sunny areas. Both species often grow in oak/pine forests, but produce well only if the tree canopy is open, allowing plenty of sunshine to reach the hazels.
How to harvest wild hazelnuts
The nuts of Corylus americana begin to turn brown before the involucres do, as you can see in the photo. And that’s when you want to pick them: when the nuts are beginning to turn brown but the involucres are still green. By the time the involucres turn brown, many of the nuts will have fallen to the ground or will have been harvested by a wild animal. So if you hope to get some nuts, you must learn to recognize the clusters when they are still green. The cluster on the left in the photo is ripe enough for harvesting. The cluster on the right with the brown involucres has already lost some of its nuts. Don’t wait that long to harvest them.
If you find an American hazel bush packed with nuts, you can harvest quite a lot of them within a very short time. Pull entire clusters right off the bush. If you like, you can pick the nuts out of the involucres right away, but the nuts are much easier to remove if you first allow the clusters to dry. Spread them out in a dry place, and after several days, the nuts will be easy to pluck.
To make sure they are good and dry for long-term storage, I put the nuts, free of involucres but still within their shells, out in the sun for about a week. I usually put them on an old screen set on a wheelbarrow, to ensure good air circulation while the nuts dry.
In his book Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, Sam Thayer says that in most years, most of the nuts of American hazel are either empty or wormy. This may vary regionally, as I have not found that to be the case here in east-central Massachusetts. I would estimate that about 80% of the American hazelnuts I harvest contain good kernels.
Beaked hazelnuts are more difficult to extract from their pinchy involucres. Don’t try to remove them before the involucres have been dried or rotted. Dry them as described for American hazels, or rot them as Sam Thayer does. He buries them in wet soil for a month, during which time the involucres soften, so that the fuzz is no longer pinchy. If you choose to dry rather than rot the involucres, you might want to wear gloves while removing them or you will get a lot of little spines stuck in your hands.
Both species of hazelnut are delicious, but ease of husk removal is a decision maker for me. In fact, I like American hazels so much that I’ve planted five bushes in my yard. So now I do most of my hazelnut harvesting right outside the back door. But, as an admirer of wild plants, I still delight in studying the leaves, twigs, and inconspicuous flowers of wild hazels, and partaking of their fruits, during my late summer wanderings.
Preparing and eating wild hazelnuts
Wild hazelnuts can be used in any recipe that calls for hazelnuts, for the flavor is very similar, if not better, than the commercially produced nuts. I sprinkle them in yogurt, oatmeal, and salads, and use them in baked goods. I make nut butter and chocolate hazelnut bark, and add them to ice cream. Check out my recipes for autumnberry hazelnut ice cream pie, and elderberry ice cream with chocolate hazelnut crunch.