Going Native: The Modest Hazelnut

On St. Patrick’s Day, we went out stalking the first wildflowers of 2016. Skunk Cabbage was raising its hooded flowers, defying the surrounding shroud of snow. Another flower I was very interested in was also blooming. The catkins (tight cluster of flowers that supposedly resemble a cat’s tail) hang from twigs of, for example, birches or hazelnuts, offering an easy way to recognize these plants.

Look closely at the buds on the American Hazelnut, and you may notice the very tiny red feathers perched on the tips of some of the buds. Use a magnifying glass to see floral details, or turn your binoculars upside down and use one of the eyepieces as a microscope. Why are these flowers so Lilliputian? The reason has to do with the hazelnut’s non-relationship with pollinating insects.

male flowersIt’s been said that the flower and insect are one. Many common flowers are large, brightly colored and fragrant, in order to attract insects. This is vital to the plant. Pollen is produced by the male parts of a flower, the “stamens,” and has to find its way to the female floral parts known as “pistils,” if the plants are to produce seeds and fruit. Once the insect is there, it becomes “pollen dusted” and is an unwitting accomplice in delivering a precious package of pollen to the next flower, and the next, and so on (nature’s “male” delivery?). This also insures a degree of genetic mixing as the pollen from one flower frequently fertilizes a separate flower of the same species.

But not all plants use insect pollination. Hazelnuts, for example, simply depend upon the wind. With enough pollen produced, odds are, some will find its way to those red female pistils of other hazelnuts, thus ensuring fertilization as well as some genetic variation (air male?).

Because hazelnuts don’t depend on insects for pollination, there is no need to devote energy to producing elaborate, colorful and large flowers. The male catkins not only produce prodigious amounts of powdery pollen, but also give away the hazelnut’s identity to the casual hiker. Those small red female flowers are easily missed.

IMG_3134Hazelnut can be found where there is a plentiful amount of light. They don’t do well in a heavy shade. It is a medium-sized shrub that prefers direct sunlight for maximum production. It can get to be 12 to 15 feet tall and spherical, spreading to 10 feet or more when open grown. When I was a kid, I’d find hazelnut shrubs along roadways, or near open, park-like areas.

Hazelnut is a good shrub to enhance your natural landscape. And it’s readily available. Be sure to ask for it by genus and species, Corylus americana. If it has a third name following this, then it isn’t the same native plant, but rather a cultivar so not as beneficial to local native insects. In general, to purchase natives, insist on only the two names – genus and species.

“Our studies have shown that even modest increases in the native plant cover on suburban properties significantly increases the number and species of breeding birds, including birds of conservation concern. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great. All we need to do is plant native plants,” said Dr. Doug Tallamy, author and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware.


“Going Native” is an occasional series from the Door County Chapter of Wild Ones. Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes promotes environmentally sound practices to encourage biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. The Door County chapter of Wild Ones aims to share knowledge and experience in natural landscaping by means of nature walks, yard visits and lectures. For more information visit

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