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Hazel, Corylus avellana and various related species, is a small tree or large shrub which has a natural distribution across Europe and Asia. There are numerous ornamental and varieties of hazel, some having 'copper' coloured (ie dark purple) foliage, others with a contorted growth habit producing cork-screw twisted branches, and various nut-producing types, which grow edible hazel nuts of varying sizes from Filbert to Cob Nuts.
The tree has a very distinctive growth habit, hazel being a plant that 'naturally' coppices - ie. it grows many stems upwards from a coppice 'stool' at the base of the plant, producing a multi-stemmed, if generally thin-trunked tree. Incidentally, a coppiced growth habit can be produced artificially in several other native species of British tree (such as ash, field maple and sweet chestnut, just to name a few) by cutting the trunk down, close to the roots, so seeing a coppiced tree is no guarantee of having correctly identified a hazel bush.
The upright poles or standards of hazel rarely grow more than six or seven inches in diameter and a single 'stool' may consist of more than a dozen of such stems. In amongst the older, thicker-trunked growth, hazel continues to produce young growth, so a naturally coppiced hazel bush will consist of a collection of mostly slender, woody trunks of various different ages: from thin, 'pea stick' type poles suitable for using as plant supports in the garden, to proper 'log basket' type tree-trunks.
The plant has an attractive silver-grey bark on the older growth trunks, that shades to a dully glossy mid-brown or darker colour on the younger twigs. The bark is usually visible in the cluster of stems round the bottom of the plant, as like a proper tree, hazel leaves are borne on the branches higher up. The leaves are a nice, mid-green colour on the non-fancy-foliaged varieties, and are rounded in shape with a slightly pointed tip. Long, dangling catkins - the male flowers of the plant - are produced abundantly in early spring - before the leaves come, as hazel is a wind-pollinated, and festoon the branches of a hazel bush very attractively in a display of pale yellowy green, for a week or so. The female flowers are tiny, bright red, and inconspicuous - being found mostly near the ends of the twigs.
From the female flowers come, in due course, hazel nuts, which grow, ripen from palest green to brown, and drop from the bush in October, all over the course of a couple of seasons. These nuts are small - maybe not bigger than a thumb-nail in the native hazel, although garden or cultivated varieties of the plant produce much larger hazelnuts. The hazel tree we have in our garden is a large, rounded, many-stemmed tree, maybe seven or eight metres tall. We haven't tried to coppice it back, but could easily have kept the size down by cutting the poles if we'd wanted to. And for all the time we've lived in this house (coming up to ten years) it has provided us with an abundance of nuts in autumn - literally, more than we're ever able to eat. The nuts when fresh off the tree contain slightly more liquid than you'd necessarily expect. The typical 'hazel nut' flavour develops more as they dry out, and is enhance by roasting the nuts in the oven. Fresh nuts are best stored in the shells, and trial and error has taught us that keeping them loose (in the shells) in a wicker basket just in the kitchen is the best way to store them, as this way, the air can get to them and they slowly dry out, which makes them last longer. You do basically end up just having a basket of whole, shell-on hazel nuts in your kitchen all year round, and this can be a problem, if, as we do, you have an intermittent mouse problem in your house (they get in through next door's jerry-built conservatory, and gain access via the party wall), as the nuts do occasionally get carried off and stored in mouse nests...
Invariably we do miss some of the nuts during the great autumn hazel nut collection, and many of these seem to germinate quite easily, growing quite rapidly into little saplings - although admittedly, from the nut stage it would take you many years for your sapling to begin bearing a good amount of fruit. That said, these trees are easy to propagate. And of course hazel nuts attract grey squirrels and other nut-eating wildlife; birds nest in it and there are lots of invertebrates that use the leaves - so the tree is an all-round excellent addition to a wildlife garden.