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“Hazel was one of the first trees to colonise the land after the end of the last Ice Age,” writes Gabrielle Hatfield, “and for a great period of time it would have been one of the most abundant tree species.”
Little wonder the hazel tree has become deeply entrenched in our ancient history, beliefs and customs.
Hazel forests provided materials for making houses, fences, furniture, baskets and tools.
Its charcoal gave early people the thrill of gunpowder. The nuts have provided a valuable source of sustenance probably since prehistory.
People told epic stories about the tree and its fruit (hazelnuts) from ancient Greece to Medieval Europe, and it had a magical reputation in many traditions.
Yet, for all its vaunted power, in the language of flowers, Hazel signifies reconciliation and peace.
The Hazel tree has provided people with food to eat, flowers to heal, and wood to build for many centuries.
This attractive tree grows up to 6–12 m. Its bark is smooth, reddish-brown and peeling, and the leaves are roundish, downy and toothed. The male flowers are one to four pendulous catkins, and the female flowers are in erect, short spikes with red styles. The roundish seeds are enclosed within large, fused bracts.
Habitat and Distribution
Native to Europe, Asia, Iran; naturalised in British Columbia, Balkans and Turkey; introduced to North America.
Parts Used for Food
Nuts, leaves, catkins, flowers.
Spring, Summer, Autumn.
Food Uses of Hazel
Hazelnuts have been an essential part of human diets since the Stone Age. Archaeological excavations in Flanders, Belgium, uncovered evidence that Stone Age people, around c13,000 years ago, roasted hazelnuts to store over winter.
Today, hazelnuts are a world food crop grown commercially in many countries, including Turkey, Spain, Italy and the US.
You are probably familiar with hazelnut chocolate spreads like Nutella and hazelnuts in pralines and chopped hazelnuts for biscuits, cakes, pastries, desserts and sweets.
The leaves of the tree have provided a source of sustenance too. In the 15th century, Hazel leaves made noteye – a spicy pork stew.
People ground Hazel leaves to make flour for biscuits and bread in 18th-century Scotland.
In Slovakia, dried catkins were ground into flour at the beginning of the 19th century.
According to some sources, hazelnuts contain 15% protein and are rich (60%) in fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins E and B (particularly B6), zinc, iron, calcium, potassium, selenium and magnesium.
Herbal Medicine Uses of Hazel
The flowers (catkins) were once drunk as tea for colds and flu.
A decoction of the bark can be taken for fever, and the leaves prescribed for diarrhoea.
People use the bark to treat cuts and boils. Likewise, the ash of burned Hazel can treat burns.
Hazel leaves stimulate blood circulation and bile secretion and are used in remedies for liver or gall bladder complaints.
The bark, leaves, flowers, catkins and nuts are all considered astringent, wound healing, blood purifying, fever-fighting, and sweat-inducing. However, the plant has not been overly used in herbal medicine through the ages.
Other Uses of Hazel
The wood has many traditional uses, including furniture, fencing and wickerwork.
In the cosmetic industry, hazelnut oil is a nourishing ingredient in body and hand creams, lotions, soaps and face masks.
In Europe, hazelnuts are a frequent cause of food allergies, unsurprising given the vast foodstuffs that include hazelnuts, hazel kernels and hazel oil.
Allergies to hazelnut start at a young age and can be severe.
People who suffer from nut allergies should avoid hazelnuts, nuts, and nut oil products.
Cleene, M. de & Lejeune, M. C. (2002) Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe. Ghent: Man & Culture.
Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants. London: Penguin.
Lim, T. K. (2012) Edible Medicinal and Non-Medicinal Plants: Volume 1, Fruits. Dordrecht: Springer.
Luczaj, L. (2012) Wild Food Plant Use in 21 St Century Europe, the Disappearance of Old Traditions and the Search for New Cuisines Involving Wild Edibles. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae. [Online] 81 (4), 245–255.
Mabey, R. & Blamey, M. (1974) Food for Free. London: Collins.
Mac Coitir, N. et al. (2015) Ireland’s Trees: Myths, Legends and Folklore.