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Hazel Tree a Stalwart of the English Hedgerow.

Updated on August 4, 2015

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

Hazels go largely unnoticed after the catkins have been succeeded by the foliage until the nuts begin to form . Yet this tree has long been part of our rural heritage. It is a member of the birch family Betulaceae, however, in some natural history books they are put in a family of their own-Corylaceae. It is usually shrub like rather than tree like in size and form, being multi stemmed. Hazels are 9-10 years old before they produce the first flowers which appear in the form of catkins well before the leaves unfurl. These prominent catkins are of a yellowish colour and hang like elongated tassels, known to country people as " lambs' tails".

Locally they are found as early as December defying the snow, bitter cold winds and frost. They begin elongate during February and March. Lambs tails -the name has always suggested to me a feminine catkin yet these are the male catkins. The female catkins are of a crimson colour and are tiny. They look like ragged wicks of a candle. A hand lens is needed to observe them properly. The male catkins have scales that spread open to allow the yellow anthers to release pollen which is shaken out by the wind.

The advantage of flowering before the foliage opens is that the pollen can more readily be blown from one tree to another. It is vital to pollination that the pollen reaches the tiny red female catkins for when they are fertilised the nuts begin to form. The foliage is rounded with toothed margins and pointed tips. The surface is slightly rough to touch.

Lambs tails-the male catkins.

The elongated catkins hang like tassels. Photograph by Andre Karwarth
The elongated catkins hang like tassels. Photograph by Andre Karwarth

Stems for Sticks.

During the winter the ends of the young twigs are often reddish in colour and have rough hairs. The multi stemmed appearance is often due to coppicing. Young stems can grow to 3 metres tall, very straight and with a shiny brown bark. I have spent many hours foraging for a stem long enough, straight enough and thick enough to make a hazel staff. Once found I strip away the bark immediately and rub them smooth with sand paper, I find this helps to prevent warping. Then hung up with string in the shed the staff is given a good application of wood stainer. After a couple of days it is rubbed down again with a fine sand paper before another coat of stainer is applied. After a farther two days or so, I apply a coat of clear varnish, my own personal preference is clear yaught varnish, which is left to dry for 24 hours, before an additional coat is added. The staff will then be left hanging for at least a week before the feral is fitted. The staff of hazel is strong, light to carry and will last a lifetime if cared for and kept out of the damp wet weather when not in use.

I have always made my own staffs and walking sticks and in the recent icy weather they have saved me from falling on more than one occasion. Older stems become gnarled and twisted and are of little use to the stick maker.

An hazel stick

A good staff will last a lifetime. Photograph by Sharif oerton
A good staff will last a lifetime. Photograph by Sharif oerton
Leaves and nuts of the hazel. photograph by Lemmikkipuu
Leaves and nuts of the hazel. photograph by Lemmikkipuu
The cute common dormouse relies heavily on hazel huts. photograph by Bjorn Schulz.
The cute common dormouse relies heavily on hazel huts. photograph by Bjorn Schulz.

How old is the tree?

Hazel trees are notoriously difficult to age in the general countryside. The old gnarled and twisted stems die off at about 30-50 years of age, but are soon replaced by vigorous new shoots. Thus the tree gives the impression of youth and freshness yet the original stump may well be hundreds of years old.

During the autumn the nuts, which often occur in twos or threes appear encased in leafy bracts that have a ragged appearance. When the nuts are still green and reasonably soft they are taken by small mammals and grey squirrels. { red squirrels are unable to digest them until they are ripe}.  The wood of hazel is also utilised in the making of broom handles, hurdles, poles, charcoal and firewood. The twigs have long been employed in the art of water divining.

HAZEL AND MEDICINE----hazel has not been used as commonly as other arboreal subjects. However, the dried and fresh leaves were said to have a stimulating effect on the circulation. The nutritious nuts contain vitamins A,B, and C, as well as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, protein and fatty oil. 

The bark was employed in medicinal preparations for its astringent qualities. It was used to staunch the flow of blood.  

The common hazel was a salient feature in the hedgerows of lowland England. There are many varieties that have been cultivated for gardens. A good example is the corkscrew  hazel Corylus avellana "contorta". It is a small, slow growing tree, with amazing twisted branches. It makes a distinct feature especially in late winter and early spring when cascading catkins grow from the contorted stems. Another favourite species is Corylus maxima "purpurea" which is grown for its purple foliage.

In the wider countryside hazel is important to the common dormouse indeed the creatures alternative name is the hazel dormouse. Several species of butterfly is also associated with the tree.


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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 7 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Thank you every one who has left a comment on Hazel Tree a Stalwart of the English Hedgerow.

    • IzzyM profile image

      IzzyM 8 years ago from UK

      Great hub, DAL:)

      I remember hazel trees from my childhood, and this brought back a lot of memories!

      I actually purchased a hazel tree here in Spain last year. I'm surprised they grow here but seems they do, and mine is doing well so far. No flowers, but then I'm guessing it's too young.

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 8 years ago from Lancashire north west England





    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 8 years ago from Michigan

      It seems like you really know your stuff! I'm impressed. I really love the photo of the dormouse :)

    • coverley1 profile image

      coverley1 8 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Very curtain rods have been taken straight off of this tree from my backyard!!...they are a bit twisted, but suit the hessian curtains.

    • jayjay40 profile image

      jayjay40 8 years ago from Bristol England

      This takes me right back, my grandfather always made his own walking sticks, glad to see this art hasn't died out. The hazel is certainly an important feature of our ever declining hedgerows. Thanks for sharing