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Hunting for Hazelnuts

I’m walking in the woods with Elise Leduc near Flume Pond in Falmouth. Leduc works as a coastal scientist and is training as a naturalist—and today she’s teaching me how to see a common shrub that gives us delicious wild nuts.

“Today we’re looking for hazelnuts. Although this is not the time to go foraging for hazelnuts, this is one of the easiest times of year to find hazelnuts,” Elise said.

She added, "foraging for hazelnuts is really more appropriate in late summer/early fall, so around September, but this time of year their catkins— the male flowering component of the plant that produces all the pollen—are really obvious and dangling from the branches, and with no leaves on any of the trees or shrubs this is the time of year you can actually see them.”

Once you see the catkins, they’re everywhere. Later in the summer, the hazelnuts will be obscured in a sea of green.

“Hazelnuts don’t grow very big. In Massachusetts they typically grow as a fairly small shrub. I’ve never seen them more than 10 or 12 feet tall, so they’re essentially part of our understory,” Elise said.

There are two different species of hazelnut that are native to New England: the American hazelnut, and the Beaked hazelnut.

“We could be looking for either one first of all they’re both edible, they’re very similar looking,” Elise said.

This time of year, it’s hard the spot the differences—which are mostly in the way the nuts grow—the leaves covering the American hazelnut are more rounded whereas the Beaked hazelnut’s leaves are elongated like a bird’s beak. One way to distinguish the American hazelnut right now is by looking for small bristly black hairs on the end of its twigs. Suddenly, we turn a corner on the path.

We find the patch of hazelnuts!

I’m seeing lots of the catkins. They almost look like a caterpillar except with little blank spaces if you look closely, and they’re dangling down off the branches and they’re kind of like a pale yellowy beige.

“That’s a really good description. They actually start if you were to come out here in say August next year’s catkins would already be formed but they would be much shorter, more tightly closed and would be a light green. It’s not until the spring when those catkins open and start producing their pollen that they elongate and each little mini flower essentially that makes up that catkin opens to release its pollen,” Elise said.

Elise says one of the neat things about a bigger patch of hazelnuts like the one we’re standing in is that they have a much higher chance of producing nuts. Hazelnut flowers are wind-pollinated, so the more plants in an area, the more pollen flying around, and the more likely each female flower is to set fruit.

Elise also explained that a single shrub can have both the male catkins and the female flowers. The female flowers are incredibly small but quite cute. So in this case you have one, two, three male catkins and a single female flower.

The flowers are tiny—even smaller than a pea and the same deep vibrant red as the maple flowers you see out this time of year. Of course, the point of learning to spot hazelnut plants is because they make delicious nuts. I’ve gotten in the habit of visiting certain highbush blueberry spots and blackberry patches in the spring to see if they’re flowering so I know to come back. And I’m hoping to find a patch of hazelnuts in my neck of the woods so I can go looking for those sweet buttery wild treats.

Here's a link to Elise Leduc's blog, Seashore to Forest Floor.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.