Roast them by an open campfire, if you can find them. Or stick to chestnuts. I challenge you to roast pine nuts though. So small.
Not just for toasty European winter harvests, we have native hazelnuts that are also great wildlife-supporting large understory shrubs, and so tough. Above are the common North American species, showing the fruits on left and flowers on right. They may not technically be trees, but I think these nuts still belong in this winter's Sexy-Tree Month of December.
What you'll find most in the Pacific Northwest is the beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta, q’ap’ux̌ʷac to the Puyallup tribe, which is in the Betulaceae plant family (birchs and such). The species name “cornuta” means horned/beaked in Latin, in reference to the bristly dry husk that juts out from the nut like a round fluted beak. More like a trumpet if you ask me, or a chiminea, but I didn’t name 'em. The name “hazelnut” is suspected to come from the Anglo-Saxon “haesel” which was a headdress or sort of bonnet, referring to the frilly husks around the ‘head’ of the nut (more like the American hazelnut or European species -Corylus avellana). These brown and bristly husks of the fruit are a fancy modified leaf (well, aren’t all flower parts, really??) called an involucre meaning “wrapper”. It's a protection of the flower and fruit as they form. And a slight deterrent to predators on the mature nut. Slight.
Check out that involucre... kind of has the ol' 2nd-day stubble look.
The PNW's beaked hazlenut is medium-short in height (about 6 meters/20 ft) as a shrub instead of a tree, with many often slightly drooping woody stems create a vase-shaped or rounded look. Naked and exposed in the winter they start forming the dangling 2” long catkin monoecious flowers, with the most obvious being the males, as the sexes are separated in different flower structures but on the same plant (“mono”- meaning 'one' and “ecious”- meaning 'house'). Like how conifers have a small pollen-loaded and allergy triggering dangly male cone and larger sturdier female cones that are the ones we bring to mind as ‘pine cones’. Fun fact- corn is also monoecious. It's cobs are cone-like too. But not all monoecious plants make cone-like fruits- hence the hazel's "nut".
Don't get confused with the much larger and actual tree- horse chestnut, which is non-native and a bit of a noxious species but common street tree, with huge palmate leaves and a big green spiky fleshy fruit.
We have two native hazelnuts in the United States, with beaked Corylus cornuta in the west, and the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) being only in the northeast US and eastern Canada. The American species’ fruit is more rounded & frilly instead of elongated to a beak, and has small black hairs at the twig tips with catkin flowers on short stalks (beaked hazelnut catkins attach directly to the stem). Both, or really all hazelnuts are edible and quite tasty. The American species make bigger nuts, as does the European species but don't dismiss the beaked. While fairly recently, Oregon has become the main source of hazelnuts eaten in the United States, they aren't the beaked that grow wild. Most hazelnuts were imported to the US prior to 1940, from various European and Asian countries. But I say- if you've got the smaller beaked nuts near by... grab some.
There are a few options for when to hunt for wild hazelnuts. Either at their peak and our furry friends haven’t snagged most of them, in late summer but that is also when the leaves are still obscuring the nuts. At the end of fall or early winter, the leaves have dropped and the catkins ding-dangle off the drooping branches for easy ID and the left-over nuts are easily visible. But you may only find between 1 or 10 on any one shrub. I will STILL leave 2/3rds for the wildlife, so I’ll walk away from that 1 on a shrub. I’m venturing into other animals’ habitat and don’t want to reduce their food supply. Also- make sure you are strategically clumsy (like me) and drop an occasional nut while collecting so there’s some dispersal and a few may make it into the ground to grow.
Yep, totally clumsy on purpose. That’s my way.
Back to the nuts-
Whenever you go find some, you’ll recognize the nuts in the dry bristly horned fruits easier than the naked shrubs themselves (though they do have those dingle-dangle catkins), so there’s not much worry about misidentifying them while you forage. I don’t know of anything else that looks like that fruit. Several trees and shrubs do produce that dangling catkin flower, but you’ll find different cone-fruits like on alders, or larger trees with big sticky buds like cottonwood.
More on those sweet sticky-icky buds later actually!
Once you’ve had a nice woodland walk and squirreled enough desired nuts, you’re ready for a little processing. You can peel off the husks onsite or at home, but be warned: they have stiff short hairs around the base of the fruit and they WILL poke into your skin, being a little itchy and annoying. But they aren’t nearly as bad as cacti hairs. You can scrub them off onto your pants in the field like I tend to, or on a scrubby sponge or brush at home. Smarties can plan ahead and bring thin gloves to harvest and/or peel.
Then you’ve got a pile of small nuts in a hard shell. I’d also suggest a short procrastination now. Feel free to admire the various sizes of your nuts while you wait. The variety of nature.
IF you collected early and the involucre (husks) are still green, I suggest spreading them out for a few days to dry as it’s easier to separate them when brown and dried. And another reason to wait: with all nuts, there are likely to be a few weevils in some of yours. You might as well keep them in a container for about a week to let these emerge so you don’t find them as you crack the nuts open. Unless you're cool with that. Either way, the damage has been done. After a weevil-wait, you’ll be able to toss those pre-chewed nuts likely with now visible holes back outside.
And now, as the season hints- time for nutcracking.
Ballet music for inspiration? Grab your tool of choice, check out some lovely museum collections for ideas if you want to get fancy. Who knew there were so many types and styles of nut crackers, from all over the world? I discovered that from a Texas pecan farm’s extensive Nutcracker collection beginning from the iconic German personified ones and expanding to a lovely variety, including some titillating Polynesian styles. I go all hulk-smash and use a big meat mallet. Anything sturdy and heavy will do. Any thick-headed relatives around?
Like other commercial nuts (pecans, walnuts, pistachios) you can eat the freed nut raw & right away, or roasted, but without any additional processing, unlike acorns (see acorn POST for more info). You can also finely grind it into hazelnut flour. Hazelnuts are also very nutritious like other nuts; high in protein, fiber, antioxidants, and omega fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals, plus the highest in folic acid (folate) of any other nut.
They are so nutritious and loved by wildlife, that you may never see any if you aren’t really looking.
I have 1 shrub right by my back door and visible from the kitchen sink window (where lots of time is spent) and I have only seen 3 fruits on it in the several years I’ve lived there. We have an unnaturally large population of invasive Eastern gray squirrels and a happy small handful of the native Douglas squirrels. And lots of birds (plus several neighboring loose cat’s trying to reduce that amount). Thus… I have to pine for hazelnuts elsewhere. Pine… get it?
My harvest this year was unfortunately a dud, with 90% of the nuts (grabbed in mid-November) eaten by already dispersed weevils. They are just dark crumbles inside, which you can guess the contents of given the previous occupant. Next year, I’d try for a September forage and dedicate time to searching through the leaves of the shrubs. Calling this year "practice"! The few I did get.... delicious!
Beaked hazelnuts aren’t just for eating. Their long narrow and pretty straight stems are good for arrows and baskets as traditionally made by Native peoples. Both the European and North American species are strongly used for various resources from the edible nuts to medicinal uses and tool-making, as well as decorative use like making dyes.
Hazels are even linked to sacred purpose for some peoples, mostly known from Europe. The Celts of northwestern Europe had held Corylus hazels with great importance, believing that they represented and bestowed wisdom and inspiration. The Druids too had a very strong connection to hazels. There are stories in Gaelic mythology of absorbing hazel’s wisdom through eating the wise salmon that ate the nuts that fell into their pool, and a hazel is even featured in the Grimm fairy tale of Cinderella, planted at her mother’s grave, growing to a full tree that helps grant her magical wishes.
I will wish for a fruitful crop and less weevils next year. If you could wish upon a hazelnut, what would you seek? Is it an omen of sorts that I could only get a tiny harvest of the wisdom holding hazelnuts? It did match the adventure I had trying to find an ac