The hazel tree and its nut have been a part of human history for a long time. From the recent findings unearthed in Western Washington of roasted hazelnut shells approx. 7,000 years old (Pigg, Manchester, & Wehr), to the modern uses for everything from pastries to skin care, the filbert, as it is also known, has enriched us with its rich packet of oils and essential nutrients.
The filbert nut has over half its mass in oil, at 60-66.4% (Schuette, Chang), with the majority being in unsaturated, or heart-healthy, form. In 2013 a study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that nuts (types used: almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts) as part of a Mediterranean-type diet, reduced the risk of “major cardiovascular events” (Estruch, et al.). The same year, another study furthered this research, and added colon cancer and hypertension, among other things, to the list of risks lowered by nut consumption (Bao, et al.). Besides oil, this nut also contains fiber, protein, and one-third a daily dose of folate (Skin Care). Vitamins A, B, D and E are present as well, with E in high enough quantities that Hazelnut Oil Hair is sometimes used as a preservative.
The world’s largest supplier of the oil by far is Turkey, with the United States coming in fourth (FAO, 2014). The tree itself is native to the northern hemisphere, ranging the eastern continents from mid-Scandinavia, through parts of Siberia, to western China, and in North American along the west coast, from British Columbia through California. The U.S. produces just 5% of the world’s hazelnuts, but of those, 99% come from Oregon (Oregon Hazelnuts), where the filbert orchards are a beautiful part of the countryside.
Corylus avellana is the version most known in Europe, and Corylus americana the common native in the United States. There are many varieties of hazel, including asian as well as Turkish variants. Besides hazel and filbert, they are also known as cobnuts. The names tend to vary by geographical locale, but they are also correlated to the shape. An elongated nut with a full husk is a filbert, and a short round nut with a husk that has a little gap on the end is a cobnut(Plants For A Future). The trees are unusual in that their natural state is as a thicket, but they can become full-size trees for nut production and harvesting, though using a cultivated variety as opposed to a wild version is recommended.
As a coppiced thicket, hazel will live up to several hundred years. Coppicing is cutting the trunks down to ground level in order to generate new growth. In this case, trees are often kept to a height of nine to twenty feet, though they can grow up to fifty. If a solitary tree is grown, it can reach up to forty feet in height, but only lives to around eighty years (Woodland Trust). Alkaline, rather than acidic, is its preferred soil.
Hedgerows are used by farmers around fields to provide shelter and an alternative food source for small animals. The effect this has on the planted crops is to further their growth by providing shade, natural pest control, and soil enrichment, and well as erosion prevention. The thick growth of a hazel stand makes it a solid addition to the hedgerow. The wands, or young limber stems and branches, are used in basketmaking, under daub and wattle, and to weave fences, as well as walking sticks. When in their winter bloom, hazel also provides food for bees (IUCN).
Legends make use of the hazel tree and its fruit as a source of wisdom. In stories from both the British Isles and the Pacific Northwest, hazelnuts are associated with the salmon, with trail food, and with the priestly or druidic quest for knowledge. Finn McCool, the intrepid Gaelic hero, got his start in life by eating a salmon that had been given the wisdom from the hazelnuts that fell into its river. Actually, he didn’t eat the salmon, as it was his teacher’s meal he was preparing, but he sucked his thumb after popping a blister on the fish as it was cooking, received all the wisdom, and his teacher got none (but did get a nice roasted salmon for dinner!) (Connemara Smokehouse).
For modern use, hazelnut oil is wonderful for oily and combination skin, as it is considered a “dry”, or astringent oil (Essential Warehouse). It absorbs quickly and smoothly, and is most often recommended as 10-30% of a blend, though it can also be used full strength on hair or skin. There are also mentions of it as being useful as a slow and consistent tonic for pinworms in children and infants (PFAF).
When it is refined, it is very light and nearly clear to light gold; unrefined versions vary from light to dark golden tones, and have a richer smell. The aroma of hazelnut oil is rich but not heavy, with a hint of sweetness. Hazelnut oil has a low heat tolerance (Mountain Rose Herbs), so if it is going in baked or cooked items, I will limit it to a few drops for a general flavor addition. It is lovely in a little more quantity, drizzled over greens and croutons or crisp fruits such as a firm acidic pear, or with pungent meats or spices as a smoothing note.