North American hardwood forests are rich in the diversity of nut-producing trees. Mature, old-growth nut trees that were hundreds of years old were common to American forests prior to European settlement. They include oaks, hickories, beeches, pecans, the now nearly extinct chestnut, and the often forgotten American Hazel. Hazelnut, when plentiful, is an important winter food for a huge variety of animals, like deer, squirrels, chipmunks, bears, and wild turkeys. Native American groups were also dependent upon the rich and nutritious nuts, which could be ground into flour or combined with honey. Both were easily stored during winter. Nuts are relatively small but extremely sweet and tasty.
American Hazelnut’s drought tolerance is just as remarkable its importance for wildlife of all types. It is a perfect small tree to fit on any size property. Multiple trees should be planted to ensure pollination and good fruit set. With just three years separating the grower from his or her first crop of nuts, planting American Hazelnut is perfect for those wanting a quick return.
American Hazelnut makes a wonderful and carefree ornamental, too. The convoluted green bracts covering the developing nuts last for much of the growing season, making it interesting to watch the crop develop. Its display of golden catkins in springtime is also fantastic, especially with an entire crop of trees in flower.
A deciduous small tree
5-12 feet tall and 4-8 feet wide
Large deciduous shrub or small tree
Full sun; flowering and fruiting decline substantially even in partial shade
American Hazelnut is a highly drought tolerant tree and does not need supplemental irrigation to perform and bear fruit. It takes three years to begin bearing a nut crop. Pruning the central leader when the tree is 6-10 feet high will increase lateral branching. This helps keep nuts at an easy picking height. It also promotes branches which can support heavy loads more easily.
Ornamental assets include the long, creamy-yellow catkins in spring which thoroughly dust the tree’s surroundings with pollen like a greenish-yellow paintbrush. Watching them transform from unexpanded gray stubs through winter to drifting golden strands in spring is amazing, especially with a group planting of Hazelnuts. In fall, it is a delight to watch the squirrels scampering up, down, and around the tree as they gather and store food for winter.
American Hazelnut’s most obvious use is for the ample quantities of fall nuts. To ensure adequate pollination, multiple trees should be planted within fairly close proximity of one another. They work well in rows or groupings.
The fall nut crops of mature American Hazelnuts are an important winter food for small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. They repeatedly check on the nuts to determine their ripeness before immediately burying and storing them. Large birds like turkeys and grouse feed on them also. American Hazelnuts are foliar hosts for the caterpillars of Juvenal’s Dusky Wing as well as the uncommon Turquoise Hairstreak.
Native to eastern North America from Maine and southern Canada south through the Midwest to Louisiana and southern Georgia. Preferred habitats include the canyons and lower slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, open woods, clearings, and hilltops.
Moderately difficult from seed
Also known as
Written by Kevin Tarner, Georgia Wildlife Federation
Photos courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden Plantfinder and Maryland Department of Natural Resources