Hazelnuts can be found across the northern United States and southern Canada. Of three native species, two predominate in the eastern part of the country and one native species, the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) can be found west of the Cascades in Oregon, north to British Columbia and south into California. C. cornuta is similar to the commercial hazelnut or filbert (Corylus avellana) but differs in that 1) it is more of a shrub, 2) it produces significantly fewer nuts, and 3) the husk of the nut is sheathed.
Also called California hazelnut, this member of the birch family can be found in woods, thickets and disturbed areas. Reproducing both by seeds and vegetatively, beaked hazelnuts are deciduous, multi-trunked shrubs or small trees that can form dense tangles.
The alternate leaves are broadly oval with a heart-shaped origin at the base and a pointed tip. The leaf edges are sinuate (wavy-lobed) and saw-toothed. Almost transparent, the leaves look beautiful in the sunshine. Male and female reproductive organs are in separate flowers located on the same tree (monoecious). The yellow male flowers are in catkins that hang freely and flower before the leaves appear. Wind pollinates the clusters of inconspicuous, tiny gray-brown female flowers that are clustered on the branches. These female flowers appear red because of their stigmas. The fruits are nuts, cream-colored turning brown when ripe, enclosed in light green tubular husks that project beyond the nut forming a “beak”. The husks are covered in bristles that stick to the fingers when picking the nuts. One to three nuts grow from the same point on the branch ends. Each shrub produces only a few nuts and some produce no nuts at all.
Hazelnuts were not a major food source for indigenous people because the plants did not produce prolifically and were sporadically distributed. When found, beaked hazelnuts are good eaten directly from the bush (two rocks work as a nutcracker) or can be dried and used the same as commercial filberts without any further processing. The nuts should be picked about September or later. Those nuts picked earlier in the season do not have the nut meat developed to fill the shell. But then, if one waits too long to pick hazelnuts there may be none left since squirrels consider this nut a delicacy. Beaked hazelnuts are delicious. Although they do not grow in our immediate vicinity, I eagerly collect these nuts whenever the opportunity arises.
Beaked hazelnut wood is not of any commercial value however Native Americans used this wood for arrows, hooks, spoons and fish traps. The long flexible shoots of beaked hazelnut were also twisted into rope. Early settlers used beaked hazelnut sticks as divining rods when dowsing (attempting to locate) water.
The species name cornuta means “horned” and obviously refers to the beak on the nut sheath. The Latin word for “hazel” is the genus name, Corylus.
These beaked hazelnuts were photographed at the Baker Wayside near Glide Oregon.