Both Americans and Europeans have enjoyed hazelnuts for centuries. Gardeners in ancient Greece and Rome imported improved varieties. In America, cultivated hazelnut trees arrived almost with the first white settlers. "In 1629 the Massachusetts Company sent to England for better English nuts for planting," according to "The Oxford Companion to Food." Americans often call the cultivated varieties "filberts" but you can find their smaller wild cousin, Corylus Americana--the American wild hazelnut--growing in most of the eastern United States.
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Search for hazelnut trees in the woods in early spring when they're festooned with 2-to-4-inch-long yellowish catkins that droop from the bare branches before the leaves emerge. Check for the smaller red female flowers along the hairy stems.
Look for clusters of small trees, 5 to 15 feet high, in midsummer, with heart-shaped leaves that have toothed edges and prominent veins. The leaves are lighter on the underside than on top and attached to hairy twigs. Look near the ends of twigs to see if you notice any clusters of nuts starting to develop.
Explore in late summer or early fall among the understory or edge of the woods for ripening hazelnuts, growing in clusters on their branches. Each nut is enclosed in a husk with a prickly end, so when several nuts grow together, the ragged ends bunched together look like a large, coarse, pale green flower. As the nuts ripen in the fall, the husks dry and turn brown.
Separate the nut from the husk, being careful of the prickles. The nut should be light brown with a paler circular area on one end, smooth-skinned and round or slightly oval.
Tips and warnings
- The beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) grows in the northern United States and southern Canada. It's similar to the American hazelnut, but its husk entirely encloses the nut, with a projecting "beak" on the end.
- Wear gloves when gathering nuts to protect your hands from the rough husks.
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