The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) : A Versatile Native Nut
I spent most of my childhood in Indiana, and most of my adulthood as well. Yet, I didn’t know that we had a native hazelnut until I started this farm. The more I learn about this tree, the deeper in love I fall. Not only is this a very easy-going tree, but it’s also fast growing, quick to bear nuts, prolific, multi-useful, and adaptable. It can grow in sun and shade and anything in between, it can handle boggy soil and well-drained soil, and it can begin to produce nuts in only 2-8 years1. This species also offers highly valuable and diversified harvests. In addition to providing an edible nut crop, the wood of the American Hazelnut is valuable for basketry, garden structures such as trellises, and many other applications2.
I have planted a few hundred American Hazelnut trees here at Strawberry Moon Farm, but mine are not yet mature enough to produce nuts. Because of that, some of the information I am sharing with you now is first hand knowledge, and some has been gathered through reading, through discussions with other growers, and through my own recipe experiments with commercially available hazelnuts. I have done my best to include citations throughout this article as applicable, and also at the bottom of this article in the “Sources” section.
The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), also known as American Filbert, is a small tree or shrub in the Birch family, with a mature height of about 8-16 feet and a spread of 8-13 feet3. It is native to Indiana, as well as most of the Eastern half of the United States and Canada4. Although our native hazelnut is a different species than most hazelnuts that are available commercially, it is closely related and similar in use. By most accounts, the nuts produced by our native tree taste like the more familiar European species, though they are smaller in size.
American Hazelnut Uses
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Hazelnuts are highly valuable as a food source. Hazelnuts are praised by most nutritionists as part of a healthy diet5 due to their protein, healthy Omega 3 fats, and numerous vitamins and minerals. They are also very versatile in the kitchen! Hazelnuts can be made into delicious nut milks, nut butters, oils, flours, or consumed whole raw or roasted as a snack. I find them to be an excellent replacement for almonds in every recipe I have tried.
Why do I need a replacement for almonds? As a person who eats a mostly plant-based diet including lots of nuts, I am concerned about the environmental impact of my consumption of almond, cashew, and coconut products. These popular nuts are grown far away from my home, carrying a hefty transportation footprint. Some of these nuts may be cultivated in unsustainable agriculture systems, or the product of exploitative labor practices. I believe sustainably cultivated, locally grown nuts are an important step on the path towards sustainability and community resilience. Native nuts such as the American Hazelnut are the ideal options for local cultivation, since native plants are well adapted to our growing conditions and have important co-evolution relationships with the native animals, insects, and soil microbes. When we grow native nut trees as a part of a sustainable agriculture system, we can help to heal our ecosystems and our communities.
Nuts in general are a long-keeping food that can help sustain local communities through the dormant season. Long keeping foods such as nuts, beans, root vegetables, and preserved foods can provide locally-grown nourishment. I have found that the raw, whole hazelnuts I purchase can last about a year when stored in a sealed container in my cool basement.
Growing American Hazelnut
This tree fills a very valuable niche in the food forest. It can form hedges, it can grow in shade, and it can handle some moisture. It is the fastest producing nut tree that I know of, with a bearing age beginning at 2-8 years. Most other nut trees require at least ten years of growth before they can bear nuts, and some (like the Shellbark Hickory) may even require 40 years! The American Hazel is small and shrubby
Although this tree is said to tolerate moist soils, in my own experience it is not well suited to high flood waters or periods of sustained flooding. I have had very low survival rates from this species in my wetland floodplain, but I am currently working to plant another hedge of American Hazelnut on higher ground in a slightly boggy area, which I expect to flourish. I also plan to replace some of the invasive honeysuckle bushes I am removing from my woods with American Hazelnut. I will continue to update you as that project develops.
Troubleshooting American Hazelnut
When I speak about American Hazelnut, people often comment that they have a tree, but it never produces nuts. Since this is such a frequently asked question, I investigated further. I found two theories as to the cause of this particular issue.
My first answer came from Chris Gonso of Worries Are Gone Farm. I visited Worries Are Gone Farm in September on a chestnut-related quest, and while I was there I was treated to a very informational tour of the grounds. Among the many wonderful sights on this farm, I saw a thriving population of American Hazelnut. There was a large hedge growing in one area, and many more individual shrubs interspersed under the forest canopy. I asked Chris all my hazelnut questions. His theory on the missing nuts: add more plants.
Some sources (such as SF Gate) claim that American Hazelnut is self-compatible (which means that pollen from one tree can fertilize blooms on the same tree). However, other sources disagree. Either way, since this species is wind pollinated, a large number of plants may be necessary to ensure adequate pollination. Wind pollination is a fairly inefficient means of pollination, and more plants means more pollen on the wind, which means more pollination, which means more nuts.
My second answer comes from the book “Native Plant Agriculture, Vol. 1”, produced by Indigenous Landscapes. According to the book, “We’ve observed that non-local genotype can struggle to set nuts possibly because the cross pollination is affected by climatic transplanting”. The author recommends purchasing seeds or plants that originate from as close to your own climate as possible to increase your chances of success.
The American Hazelnuts at Worries Are Gone Farm certainly seemed prolific. I even saw nuts on the bushes growing deep in the woods under the shade of the canopy! Chris reported much better productivity from the bushes he planted in full sun, but it was clear that some nut production can occur in shady plantings. Additionally, shady plantings can be grown and pruned for a wood harvest.
“American hazelnuts are a good option for folks looking for something hardy and resistant to filbert blight. They produce even after late spring freezes and I’ve never seen them miss a year in production. Their main drawbacks are a smaller sized nut compared to the European hazel and an extra step in processing as the nuts usually need to be removed from the husk. Overall, they are a joy to grow and work with with everyone in my family loving them, especially the kids.”Chris Gonso, Worries Are Gone Farm
For Further Reading:
Hazelnut Trees Are Easy – Cornell Small Farms Program
USDA Plants Database – Corylus americana Walter
Worries Are Gone Farm
Missouri Botanical Gardens – Corylus Americana
Plants For A Future – Corylus Americana
American Hazelnut – Arborday