If you live in the Pacific Northwest and you pay attention, in late winter you will notice a tree-like shrub covered in plump, yellow catkins. This is the Beaked Hazelnut tree (Corylus cornuta), a PNW native.
My childhood home was built on the edge of a nature preserve. After school on dry days and in the summer all the kids in the neighborhood would take over the woods, making forts, setting up bases and playing epic games of capture the flag. I remember there was a particular Hazelnut tree we used as the jail in one of the base camps. Hazelnuts grow in clumps of stems around 6 inches thick and up to about twenty feet tall. In this particular tree the stem in the center had broken off leaving an empty space in the middle of all the other smaller stems. They were malleable enough to move around and we would pry them apart to put someone in the jail and let the trunks bounce back into place to “lock” the captured person in.
Male Hazelnut flowers grow in catkins, a cluster of flowers arranged cylindrically around a slender stem. The catkins dangle like fringe at the ends of the branches. Their pale yellow color in the overcast PNW winters is easy to miss. When the sun breaks through the clouds and lands on a flowering hazelnut tree the effect is dramatic, like finding a tree covered in chains of gold. The effect is made more dramatic due to the fact that most other deciduous trees and perennials are still dormant and the Hazelnut tree itself won’t leaf out for another month at least. Grey and bare of leaves, the catkins steal the show. If you look very closely on the same tree, you will discover the tiny female flowers sporting delicate hot pink stigmas and styles above the ovaries.
After the dazzling display of catkins, the leaves fan out, loosely oval and covered in soft hairs. As a girl I remember rubbing their soft fur on my face. They make great toilet paper in a pinch too!
In the fall the female flowers ripen into tasty nuts. They are paired together like Siamese twins, wrapped in a bristly husk that is beaked on either end.
They are safe to eat if you find them in the wild. Though the squirrels are so efficient at harvesting the nuts when they ripen, a person will be lucky to ever beat them to it. Once, I was hiking and as I came around the bend came face to face with a juvenile squirrel. He carried a pair of hazelnuts in his small mouth, husks and all. They were easily twice as wide as his head. His barking was muffled by his treasure, but I heard it all the same, orchestrated by his twitching tail.
I laughed. “Don’t worry. I wouldn’t dream of taking them from you.”
This seemed to satisfy the squirrel and it darted off into the dense understory.
The Beaked Hazelnut is a frequent member of the understory in Pacific Northwest forests, though its unassuming carriage and humble flowers means it often goes unnoticed. It lights up the landscape in early spring, provides TP in a pinch and produces nutritious wild edible nuts for the avid or for the lucky forager. Next time you see one take a moment to hunt down a tiny pink flower or to rub its soft leaves on your cheek.