The Celts equated hazelnuts with concentrated wisdom and poetic inspiration, as is suggested by the similarity between the Gaelic word for these nuts, cno, and the word for wisdom, cnocach.
There are several variations on an ancient tale that nine hazel trees grew around a sacred pool, dropping nuts into the water to be eaten by some salmon (a fish revered by Druids) which thereby absorbed the wisdom. The number of bright spots on the salmon were said to indicate how many nuts they had eaten.
In an Irish variation of this legend, one salmon was the recipient of all these magical nuts. A Druid master, in his bid to become all-knowing, caught the salmon and instructed his pupil to cook the fish but not to eat any of it. However in the process, hot juice from the cooking fish spattered onto the apprentice’s thumb, which he instinctively thrust into his mouth to cool, thereby imbibing the fish’s wisdom. This lad was called Fionn Mac Cumhail and went on to become one of the most heroic leaders in Irish mythology.
The Gaelic word for hazel is Coll. It appears frequently in placenames in the west of Scotland, such as the Isle of Coll and Bar Calltuin in Appin, both in Argyll-shire where the tree and its eponymous placenames are the most common. It also appears in the name of Clan Colquhoun whose clan badge is the hazel. The English name for the tree and its nut is derived from the Anglo-Saxon haesel knut, haesel meaning cap or hat, thus referring to the cap of leaves on the nut on the tree.
Hazel trees frequently grow as a clump of slender trunks, and when they do adopt a one-trunk-and-canopy tree shape, they readily respond to coppicing, a practice which can actually extend and even double the lifespan of a hazel. Either way, people have put the young shoots or whips and the thin trunks to a variety of uses.
Hazel has long been a favourite wood from which to make staffs, whether for ritual Druidic use, for medieval self defence, as staffs favoured by pilgrims, or to make shepherds crooks and everyday walking sticks. In the case of the latter two, the pliancy of the hazel’s wood was used to bend the stems into the required shape, though it was also customary to bend the hazel shoots when still on the tree to ‘grow’ the bend into a crook or walking stick. The wood readily splits lengthways and bends easily, even right back on itself, which makes it ideal for weaving wattle hurdles for use as fencing or as medieval house walls when daubed with mud and lime. Hazel stakes bent to a U-shape were also used to hold down thatch on roofs. Like willow, young coppiced hazel shoots were used to weave a variety of baskets and other containers. Forked twigs of hazel were also favoured by diviners, especially for finding water. Hazel leaves are usually the earliest native ones to appear in spring and often the last to fall in autumn, and were fed to cattle as fodder. There was also a belief that they could increase a cow’s milk yield.
In days gone by hazelnuts would have provided a plentiful and easily stored source of protein, and they were often ground up and mixed with flour to be made into nourishing breads. Cultivated hazelnuts called filberts take their name from St Philibert’s Day on 20 August, the date by which hazelnuts were supposed to start ripening. Holy Cross Day on 14 September was traditionally given as a school holiday for children to go nutting, a custom which persisted in England until the First World War. Various places celebrated Nutcrack Night sometime during November, when the stored nuts were opened, though apparently some parishioners were in the habit of taking hazelnuts to church on the following Sunday to be cracked noisily during the sermon. Today hazelnuts continue to be eaten, though more frequently in luxury foods such as chocolate and as hazelnut butter, and as a Christmas delicacy. Woodland crafts using hazel are also enjoying a resurgence, and hazel wattle hurdles have even been used as sound screens along motorways.
“And fill all fruit with
ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd,
and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel”
From ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats