Its small, mostly-spherical shape is easy to overlook in a handful of mixed nuts, lacking the wrinkly texture of the pecan and walnut, the distinctive pointy shape of the almond, the meaty heft of the Brazil nut or the chunky curvature of the cashew. But its flavor and texture enhance fancy chocolates around the world.
The familiar edible hazelnut is native to Eurasia, usually some variety of Corylus avellana. My fellow hazelnut lovers/native plant aficionados will delighted to know we have our own native hazelnut here, Corylus americana…though its nuts are quite a bit smaller and less meaty than the commercial variety.
The American Hazelnut is a large shrub that is not terribly spectacular in appearance, though its nuts are enclosed in a pair of attractive, feathery-looking bracts. Many nut-loving birds and mammals enjoy hazelnuts: blue jays and woodpeckers, squirrels and mice…and the occasional human.
Seeing the smooth brown nuts peeking out from their protective bracts, I could not resist taking one to sample. It looked much like a standard hazelnut in the shell that can be found in bulk bins around the holidays, but much smaller in stature. Alas, the lack of a nutcracker in the house led to an ill-advised attempt using a tool not suited to the job, and as a result the little nut exploded spectacularly, shattering into fragments of shell and a tiny morsel of nut that was nearly too small to taste.
Although I can’t be certain the bulk of the nut didn’t fly off in the shattering and land unseen in a corner of the room, the meager reward has convinced me that these little nuts are best left to those creatures adapted to eat them. I shall continue to take my fancy hazelnuts comfortably ensconced in chocolate, and enjoy the American Hazelnut from afar for its value to our wild neighbors.
Originally published in Sycamore Greenway Friends.