Hazel is the woodsman’s tree par excellence.  From Britain to the Ural mountains and as far south as Cyprus, Europe’s ancient woodlands are graced with this attractive but modest-sized multi-stemmed species, rarely growing more than 10 metres (33 feet) tall.  The hazel is one of the earliest woodland trees into springtime activity, its pale yellow drooping male catkins brightening short days from February onwards, offering pollen up to the tiny red flowers on its speckled pale brown, smooth twigs. 

Hazels come into leaf in March and grow at prodigious speed throughout the summer – sometimes several feet in a year.  Given enough sun they produce abundant crops of small round nuts, appearing creamy green in their hat-like bracts (haesel is the Old English word for a cap) and then ripening to a dark shiny brown. They can be eaten while unripe; in autumn they are collected by both humans and red squirrels, who cache them as a vital winter food source.

Hazels followed close behind birch trees in colonising northern latitudes after the last Ice Age and it seems likely that they were propagated as much by hunter-gatherer communities following herds of elk and deer as they were by industrious squirrels.  Just as important as the nuts, the strong, pliable rods that spontaneously sprout from the base of the tree are perfect for all sorts of light construction and tool-making.  The woven rods make strong, lightweight hurdles for animal pens and fencing; they formed wall panels for traditional round houses and wattles for medieval buildings, daubed with clay, straw and dung to make them weather proof.  They were used to improvise stretching frames and sprung devices; as handles for brooms, and were bundled as faggots for firing ovens. 

The hazel is naturally self-coppicing and it must have been a prime mentor in the education of early woodsmen.  They realised its potential for producing regular crops of straight, even bored poles that could be harvested every seven or eight years on a continuous, ever-giving cycle.  Hazel rods are found on archaeological sites wherever wet soils preserve wood: in ancient causeways across marshes; in the structures of lake dwellings and crannogs.  And in the very earliest inhabited structures of Scotland and Northern England hazel nut shells are found, carbonised, in the long dead embers of camp fires.

Read more on the Woodland Trust site >