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Roots and Branches: the links

Haesel Knut

This well-known hedgerow plant producing catkins and hazelnuts. Supports at least 70 insect species. Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon "haesel knut" - haesel = cap/hat, referring to the cap of leaves on the nut when it is on the tree. Corylus may come from the Greek "kopus" or korus" = a cap (from the husk) or from "karyon" (kapuov) = a nut. The fertilised flowers grow into nuts which ripen September to October. The nuts are distributed by squirrels, woodpeckers and small rodents. Male and female flowers grow on the same tree - the male are catkins. Female flowers are little egg-shaped buds that sit on the branch unstalked.

Hazel is important for providing the main habitat for an ascomycete fungus, a rare fungus in Britain, only discovered on Hazels in the UK in 1970 in Mull. It is also important for lichens and is the best UK host species for Graphidion lichens, some of which are endangered or rare. Five species of moth are associated with Hazel. The leaves are eaten by roe and red deer. It is also an important habitat for the dormouse. Food plant of the caterpillars of the following moths - Oak Beauty, Small White Wave, The Magpie, Clouded Border, Barred Umber and Winter.Hazel is frequently coppiced.

Hazel is the sacred plant of the Celtic sea god Manaman. The Celts also believed that hazelnuts held concentrated wisdom. One old tale tells of Hazel tress growing round Connla's Well, the well of wisdom and believed to be the source of the River Shannon, and dropping hazelnuts into the water. These nuts were eaten by salmon, who were revered by the Druids, who absorbed their wisdom. The number of spots on a salmon indicated the number of nuts it had eaten. Catching a salmon and eating it would endow the eater with wisdom. In an Irish version of this tale, one salmon only ate all the nuts. A Druid master told his pupil to catch and cook the fish but not to eat it. The hot fat from the fish while cooking splattered the pupil's thumb, which he licked to cool it - thereby imbibing the fish's wisdom. He was known as Fionn Mac Cumhail and became one of the most heroic leaders in Irish mythology. The phrase "in a nutshell" probably derives from this legend because all wisdom is within the nut. In Norse mythology Hazel was known as the Tree of Knowledge and was sacred to the god Thor.

Many legends tell of Hazel wands being able to induce shape-shifting, eg, Sadb, mother of Fion's son, Oisin, was turned into a deer by such a wand. According to legend, St Patrick used a Hazel wand to drive the serpents out of Ireland. In folklore, Hazel trees are often found bordering worlds where magical things happen. In "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" (1534), there is record of a Hazel wand used as a charm against witches and thieves.

In Scotland, Hazel was one of the 9 sacred woods used in fires at Beltane. Nuts have been linked with fertility in old country folklore. In nineteenth-century Devon, for example brides used to be met outside church by an old woman holding a basket of hazelnuts to encourage fertility. It was believed that a good nut year meant many babies. Hazelnuts were also given the names of potential husbands and thrown into the fire by eager girls. The loudest pop and brightest flame indicated true love. Similarly, on Halloween (Nut Crack Night) lovers would roast hazelnuts over fires - depending on if they burned steadily or flew apart signified the future of the couple's relationship. At Roman weddings Hazel torches were burnt on the wedding night, meaning happiness for the couple. A double hazelnut will kill a witch. A rosary of hazelnuts = protection. Hazel twigs gathered on Palm Sunday would protect the house from fire and lightening. Cut a Hazel stick before sunrise on May Day and draw a circle round yourself with it to protect against fairies, serpents and evil. Three Hazel pins stuck into a house wall will protect from fire. If you stir jam with a Hazel stick it won't be stolen by fairies.

The Irish kept a hazelnut in the pocket to ward off rheumatism. A double nut protected from toothache. Hazel trees were plentiful in ancient Scotland. The Romans called Scotland Caledonia, from Cal-Dun = "Hill of Hazel". Hazel twigs were used to bind vines to stakes. Vines were sacred to Bacchus, god of wine, and any goats found feeding on them were caught and sacrificed to Bacchus on spits of Hazel. Sheep farmers would not take catkins into the house because they believed to do so would lead to a poor lambing season.

14 September, Holy Cross Day, used to be a school holiday so that children could go nutting. A hurdle of Hazel around a house or a Hazel breast band on a horse, offered protection from evil. In eastern England, Hazel boughs were collected on Palm Sunday and placed in vases on windowsills to protect against lightning.

Hazel is a favourite wood for staffs, ritual wands, walking sticks, self-defence and shepherds' crooks. The wood bends easily so is ideal for weaving fences. Hazel stems bent into a U shape were used for holding down thatch on roofs. Young Hazel shoots were used to make baskets and containers. Forked twigs were used for water divining.

The tree itself has few medicinal properties, although the nuts have some. Milk from the nuts can be used to treat chronic cough, and mixed with pepper for runny noses and eyes. Culpeper recommended mixing dried husks with red wine for diarrhoea. Hazelnuts were also often ground up with flour to make bread. Adder bites were treated by laying cross-shaped pieces of Hazel wood against the wound.

Plant Hazels in a moist but free-draining spot. When trimming in March, make sure, if you want nuts, that you leave some catkins and female flowers on the trees. Will tolerate windy, exposed sites.


a wonderful essay by
Mara Freeman
on the magical properties
of the hazel

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