Walking in the woods is my favorite activity during these cool fall days. I love watching the maples starting to turn and the spikes of the pin oak against a deep blue sky. This time of the year I am also feasting my eyes on all the wild berries. Hobble bush has lush clusters of red fruit, as do the wild cherries. The wild Elderberry stems are drooping with clusters of purplish blue – black berries. Around the brook the witch hazel has formed tight budded clusters that will soon bear delicate yellow threaded flowers.

I have a particular fondness for understory trees after living in New Mexico where the understory is cut away to prevent forest fires. The beaked hazelnut is one of my favorite bush –like trees. And this year these trees are full of ripening nuts that will feed many forest creatures. The nut capsules I see are fuzzy and found in clumps of two (if you pick them they can irritate your skin). They are rich in protein and fat and favorites of red squirrels and chipmunks. They are also a preferred food source of ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, hairy woodpecker and blue jay. The buds in winter and catkins in spring are a valuable protein source for ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare and American woodcock. Snowshoe hare heavily browse young shoots during the winter. Hazelnuts are also one of the most important and preferred bear foods in northeastern Minnesota. Across North America, availability of nuts and acorns (hard mast) is a major predictor of Black bear growth and reproductive success. Although adult trees produce nuts on a yearly basis, the crops are not always abundant. During years when they are black bears gain extra weight, nuisance activity is infrequent, fewer bears go to hunters’ baits, and pregnant females go on to produce healthy surviving cubs. Countless scientific studies have shown that Black bears prefer the diversity of wild foods as long as they are available.

This tree grows in woodlands and forest edges and supposedly can reach a height of 26 feet although the ones I see are smaller seeming to prefer some shade. The stems have smooth gray bark and the leaves are green, coarsely toothed and oval shaped with hairy undersides. The male flowers are distinctive catkins that form in the fall and pollinate tiny red female flowers the following spring. The fruits mature over the summer into nuts that are enclosed in a husk with a tubular extension that some say looks like a beak. This hazel is the hardiest of all the hazelnut species tolerating temperatures of minus 50 degrees in northernmost areas.

Because I have so few of these trees on my property, I am collecting ripening nuts to plant here, although I understand that germination rate is low. Beaked hazelnuts prefer a rich sandy-clay loam but will sprout in less desirable soil. I see these understory trees growing under maples, birch and other hardwoods along the roadsides but they need light to produce nuts so an open canopy is desirable. Like many shrubs, hazelnut plays an important role in nutrient cycling within a forest. Its leaves are rich in calcium and manganese and help fertilize nearby trees and other plants. The tree is useful for plantings in areas where some shade and protection are available. The nuts are tasty and in the past were much more commonly eaten by people especially in Northern Maine. Since the shrub does not tolerate much wind, hazelnut grows poorly in open windbreaks, but can be used along stream -banks.


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