One of the first signs that spring is on the way is to see Hazel catkins lengthening and waving in the wind.  These lambs’ tails as they are known in some parts, are the male flowers releasing their pollen, but how many of you have noticed the female catkins with their red tufted stigmas like tiny punk rockers?

Hazel bushes are a common and important feature of the hedgerows that decorate our local landscape, providing various benefits for wildlife, people and the environment. The Latin name, Corylus avellana, comes from a Greek word for the hood that encloses the nuts and the Italian city of Avella which was an important source of the nuts for ancient Rome.

Hazel bushes have a long history of human use and management in Devon. Mostly, the modern use is as a hedge, but they have been coppiced for centuries in the woodland on the steeper parts of the valley.  

In coppicing, they were cut back every five to eight years to produce crops of poles of various sizes. The harvested poles were used to make woven lattices called wattle to make fencing, hurdles and the foundation of wattle-and-daub walls for houses. Hazel poles still have some use but the practice of coppicing has been in decline since the Second World War. 

Coppicing woodland benefits the wildlife because the cycle of cutting different areas of the timber every few years creates a patchwork habitat with the different ages of the timber generating varied levels of light and shade.  Woodland flowers such as Wood Anemone and Wood Sorrel benefit from this, but so do creatures such as butterflies that need the sunny glades.  This in turn attracts, birds and mammals, such as woodpeckers, jays, squirrels and shrews.

Hazel is anemophilous, it is wind pollinated.  If you tap one of the male catkins when it is fully open you will release a cloud of pale yellow pollen.  This is blown by the wind to be caught by the red tufted stigma of the tiny female catkins.  To avoid self-pollination and inbreeding, the male catkins on a bush will release their pollen before the female catkins are ready to receive the pollen.  When a female catkin is pollinated, it takes up to three months for the pollen tubes to grow down and fertilise the ovules.  The nuts begin to develop in May and ripen in September and October.

The nuts or filberts have been collected and eaten since ancient times. They are rich in protein, fat and minerals, and can be eaten raw, roasted or ground into flour. You can also extract hazelnut oil, which is used for cooking and cosmetics.

Hazel bushes are not only useful, but also beautiful. They add colour and interest to the landscape throughout the year, with the delicate yellow catkins in early spring followed by the bright green oval leaves with their range of teeth around the top of the margin.  They are especially attractive in autumn, when their leaves turn an orange/gold colour and there is the fun of hunting for nuts that haven’t already been eaten by mammals and birds. 

Hazel bushes are a key part of Devon’s natural heritage, and deserve our appreciation and protection. The decline in coppiced woodland and our hedgerows is a real loss to the richness of our environment.  We can help by planting more hazel bushes in our own gardens and green spaces, and enjoy their beauty and bounty.

Ed Dolphin

Image credits SVBG

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