I had the good fortune to meet cook, forager and font of plant information, Mallory O’Donnell the other day. Mallory was in town to lead a wild foods/ecology talk and walk at Opus 40, the stone sculpture park in nearby Saugerties. It was a generous walk filled with wit and wisdom, in an inspiring place. If you ever get the chance to walk with Mallory or go to Opus 40, you will be well rewarded! Speaking of reward, aside from a bevy of jars filled with intriguing goods redolent of the wild, there was this small bunch of wild hazelnuts Mallory had gifted me, picked with a friend just the day before. I felt blessed, as they say.
Once home, I began to pop the nuts from their curly seed pods (called involucres). My son also got involved–it’s incredibly satisfying. I think it’s one of those feelings deeply embedded in our DNA, one of finding a fat rich nut, an ancestral conditioned response we cannot help but to feel. As I was shelling the nuts, I started to wonder where I could find my own wild hazelnuts, where I could start looking for them. In all my walks I have never seen them, but I could have easily missed them. There is witch hazel everywhere in these parts, why not hazelnuts? Then it dawned on me: didn’t I get a little bundle of ten bare root whips from the Arbor Day Foundation years ago and plant them in my yard, down by the pond? I was still as I recalled this fact, and then a frenzy grabbed me. I had to go check.
On Monday morning, I went down to the pond, which honestly I have been neglecting. Sometimes a few acres tires you out, and you just let it go. Which is what I have done in the last few years. There’s only so much time and energy, and a few disappointments can add up and weigh you down. I saw this clearly when looking at the patch of hill in which I planted the hazelnuts, in between and under a few large red oaks. I had been so hopeful when I planted them that I named them: Albert, Dilbert, Filbert, etc. The Berts. And now there was a huge tangle of poison ivy, grape vines, rosa multiflora, autumn olive, oak and maple saplings, goldenrod, and numerous other plants crowding the space. But through the anarchy, I spotted one. The large rounded and serrated leaves of the hazelnut bush.
I began hacking my way in; the bush was about ten feet in. I had suited up properly and prayed to the poison ivy gods to spare me. When I got to the bush, I noted its relative health despite the choking environment. And lo, there were hazelnuts! Small frilly packages holding rather large nuts, compared to the wild ones. These are hybrid hazelnuts, and that’s why they are larger. Not only that, but I saw another larger bush, and another one! For the past two days I’ve been hacking back the vines and scrub that were choking the dears, and now they are free. One of them, the largest, was so bowed down under tentacles of grape and prickers of rose, that I felt a burst of joy when it bounced up freely. There were nuts on each one. I regret neglecting them for so long!
Do you want to grow hazelnuts? You should! And maybe don’t forget about them like I did. The Arbor Day Foundation is a good place to start–that’s where I bought mine. You can check out their Hazelnut Project here.