Tremendous Trees – Hazel
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 17th September 2015, last updated: 28th January 2020
Welcome back to our occasional series about the amazing trees we find in our native Scottish woodland. Today we are exploring the facts and legends of that most ancient of woodland trees, the hazel.
Hazel tree growing in Highland Titles Nature Reserve, overlooking the Salachan Burn
Hazel has been native in the British Isles since the beginning of time, or near enough, at least 11,000 years. If that doesn’t qualify as native we’d like to know what does. It is part of the understorey of a wood, which means it grows beneath the larger tree canopy. This is because the diminutive hazel is a mere 8 meters tall on average, though taller ones have been noted, up to 15 meters in height on a sunny day with the wind at its back. Stumpier ones clock in at a positively dwarf-like 3 meters. A Scots pine can grow to 36 meters, so that gives you some idea of why an 8 meter hazel is a mere understorey tree. More of a shrub really.
A hazel coppice wood
Saying that, there have been many instances of purely hazel forests. These would have been grown in the past for coppicing. Hazel is a particularly good wood for house building, among other pursuits. Poles were cut for wattle and daub walls, and also fencing. It was a common tree in hedgerows, which acted as field boundaries in the old days. The other wonderful thing about the hazel tree is its edible and extremely nutritious hazelnuts, also known as cobnuts or filberts.
Those unassuming little nuts contain Thiamine, copper, Vitamin E and magnesium, as well as being protein-rich and full of unsaturated fat – that’s the good kind! In the old wildwoods where our ancestors dwelt, they placed much value on the humble hazelnut for sustenance. So much so that recently, at an archeological dig in the Hebrides stacks of hazelnut shells were found, slightly charred and broken. They had been roasted then split to get the nuts out. This proves that hazelnuts were digested by our Mesolithic (middle stone age) ancestors in great quantities.
Hazel nuts developing on the tree in our nature reserve
Today you can buy bags of shelled hazelnuts in supermarkets produced by commercial hazel orchards. The top producer of hazelnuts in the world by far is Turkey. Here in Scotland our red Squirrels are the main consumer of hazelnuts, along with other small rodents. In fact often when you come across a hazel tree in late summer you’ll probably find it has no nuts left on it, because those pesky squirrels have eaten them all. They can’t wait!
How to Identify a Hazel Tree
The best way to identify a hazel tree, if you can’t see any nuts, is by the leaves. They are rounded with a point at the end, serrated at the edges, and slightly furry to the touch. On the twigs and leaf bases you will find stiff little orange hairs. Hazel is a member of the birch family, Betulaceae, so is a cousin of the Alder, Birch and hornbeam. The leaves of the hazel turn bright yellow in autumn just before they fall.
Leaves and nuts of hazel tree, showing the serrated edges of the leaf (though this one has been nibbled by something!)
The hazel doesn’t live as long when left to itself, about 70 years at most. But when it is coppiced it can last much longer. The trunk has multiple shoots, which makes it look more like a shrub than a tree. When coppiced it throws up thin straight and long smooth poles which are extremely durable and hard. These were weaved together for wattle in the old days of wattle and daub housing. The use of wattle and daub in house building dates back 6000 years.
Wattle and Daub in a timber framed house “HeiligenstadtFachwerk”. Licensed under wikiCommons.
Hazel twigs were woven together to form the Wattle, then daubed with a sticky paste made from a combination of ingredients, which might be anything among mud, clay or animal dung for the paste, horsehair or straw to give strength and flexibility, and then water to mix it all together. Wattle and daub housing is enjoying a revival in developed countries as a low impact solution to climate change. It is extremely long lasting, uses only natural sustainable materials and offers better insulation than brick. For an interesting demonstration of wattle and daub building click the link.
Hazel tree in Highland Titles Nature Reserve (taken with Stewart’s fancy new camera!)
Hazel Tree in Myth and Legend
In Celtic mythology the hazel tree was imbued with significance, and said to be a keeper of wisdom and symbol of fertility. There are various references in myth and legend to a pool of wisdom around which hazel trees grew. As their nuts fell into the water the fish would eat them. Eating the fish was supposed to transfer prophetic abilities to the eater.
In Norse mythology, which may have influenced the Celtic version, the hazel tree was called the tree of knowledge. At the sites of many sacred wells in Britain the presence of hazel is found, either in archeological remains or actually growing. The Chalice Well in Glastonbury is surrounded by hazel trees. Hazel has long been associated with water as it grows best on boggy wet ground, and hazel rods were the preferred wood for water divining.
Divining water with a hazel rod, Devon 1942
If you wanted to know all about your intended match, a Scottish Halloween tradition was to throw two hazelnuts representing the two lovers into a fire, designating one hazelnut for each person. If they glowed at the same brightness in the heart of the flames then successful marriage was assured. If one glowed brighter than the other then the loving feelings would not be equal between them. If the hazelnuts sparked and jumped away from each other, cancel the wedding cake!
In Scots Gaelic the word for Hazel is variously Calltuin or Calltainn. In Irish it is Coll. Derivations of this word can be seen in place names such as the famous Calton Hill in Edinburgh, suggesting that Calton Hill may once have been populated by a grove of hazel trees.
Calton Hill in Edinburgh, showing the Dugald Stewart monument.
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