Growing hazelnuts is an opportunity grow and harvest nuts at home without having to plant trees that will grow huge, and take years before they produce. Hazelnuts or American filberts are native to the American Midwest, and grow in fertile, well drained soil. They also make an attractive hedgerow or individual planting that grows about 10 feet tall and wide. Once established, they can produce heavily and consistently.
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Hazelnuts can be propagated in two ways:
You can start new plants from nuts. They tend to take some time to germinate, and do best when planted in pots with light potting soil. When they do germinate, let them grow to at least 6 - 12 inches before you transplant them in their final home. If you try this method, use a file to scribe a small notch through the shell of the nut before planting. This is supposed to aid in quicker germination, and a higher percentage of overall germination.
An easier way to propagate is by digging starts from established bushes (if you can actually find source plants). Hazelnuts spread by underground runners that develop roots. These runners can be cut away from the main plant using a sharp digging spade. This is best done in the late fall after leaves have dropped and and the bushes have gone dormant. The roots of transplanted starts will continue to grow and develop until the ground freezes. This is how I started all of my hazel nuts, and they seem to have done quite well.
Of course there are nurseries that sell both native, European, and hybrid cross hazelnut plants, and you can order them through these businesses.
One of the most important keys to success in growing hazelnuts is starting your new plants off right. Don't skimp on the hole you dig for your new plants. Dig a hole at least twice the size of the root ball of the plant, and loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole as well. Loosened soil around the plants roots allows for quicker and healthier root formation.
See my page about planting fruit trees for more information on planting.
Hazelnuts usually begin to bear nuts in their 3rd or 4th year - similar to grafted fruit trees, but it may take 2-3 more years before they really take off and produce heavily.
Hazelnuts have both male and female blooms on the same plant which form during the prior year and remain dormant through most of the winter. They bloom very early in the year (late winter to early spring), well before leaves appear - usually by mid-March in southern Indiana. Pollination is accomplished by wind action, as few insects are active this early in the season.
Male (pollen producing) blooms are called catkins. Female (fruiting) blooms produce the nuts and are very small and easily overlooked. They look similar to leaf buds on branches, but they are rounder shaped with very small red threads coming out of them.
Nuts form in clusters called burrs, and begin to grow when leaves start to grow. These burrs can contain from a single nut up to about a dozen. Nuts ripen in mid fall, and the entire burr is picked, with nuts being removed later.
Harvest Hazelnuts in the fall when leaves and burrs start turning brown. Shuck the nuts from the burrs by pulling the two parts of the burr around the nut apart. Most of them will simply fall out at this point. Some will require a bit more effort.
Lay the nuts out on newspaper to dry for a few days before roasting them.
How many hazelnuts can you expect to harvest? Well, for reference I have a 30 foot hedge of hazelnuts, and last fall harvested 2 bushels of burrs, which when shucked, resulted in 3 gallons of clean nuts that I was able to roast, and enjoy eating and giving away as Christmas gifts.
The easiest way that I have found to roast hazelnuts is in the oven on a baking sheet.
Spread the nuts our evenly in a single layer on a shallow baking sheet and roast in a preheated 350° oven. Roast for 15 minutes, remove the pan and stir the nuts around, working the ones from the outer edge of the pan to the center, and and from the center to the outer edge. Return to the oven and roast for an additional 15 minutes.
Allow them to cool and store roasted nuts in zipper bags. They can be stored in the freezer to help keep them tasting fresh through the year. Use a standard nut cracker to break the shells so you can enjoy the flavor of your own home grown, fresh roasted hazelnuts! Be careful though, once you start eating them, it'll be hard to stop.
Growing your own nuts at home doesn't have to mean a huge use of limited space or a decade of waiting time before you get your first harvest. Growing native hazelnuts in an ornamental shrub or a hedge row, can be a quicker, attractive and highly effective way to start harvesting early. Give it a try, and you'll not likely be disappointed.
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Declining in the wild
As a kid, I remember collecting wild American Filberts (Corylus Americana) and Beaked Filberts (Corylus Cornuta) from hedgerows at my grandparents farm. We roasted them, and ate the small nuts for snacks. It's the only place in southern Indiana that I ever saw them growing.
After I grew up, I dug some starts and planted them at my home...then moved, planted more and moved again, then again, and finally settled down at a fourth (my present and hopefully final location). As a result, I left hazelnuts growing at four different locations in southern Indiana. It's a good thing I did, because the original bushes at the old family farm (having been sold) are long since gone. Victims of "modern" farming techniques that advocate removal of hedgerows to allow more room for planting.
Unfortunately, the beaked filbert bushes were long gone even by the time I wanted to dig starts. I've not seen beaked filbert bushes anywhere again.
I recently read an article that said they were extirpated (extinct) in Indiana as well as in Kentucky. This decline is partly due to farming techniques, but also because of a poorly understood decline in the plants throughout their range. What a shame and loss of biological diversity.