Hazel, a tree which whispers to us that though we may be experiencing the coldness of winter, the promise of spring is round the corner. At this time of year the Hazel catkins start to tremble in the wind and release their pollen.

In January, with no leaves, lots of catkins and shiny bark, hazel is an easy tree to identify.

The male flowers are on yellow catkins that hang down ready to release pollen onto the wind. If you look closely at a catkin you can make out the individual flowers There may be over 200 male flowers on a single catkin.

The female flowers are red and tiny and are located in a flower bud on the branch above the catkin. You can see one in the picture at the top of this page. If you look closely, preferably with a magnifying glass, you can see the red stigmas that collect pollen from the wind. Inside the bud are 6 flowers, each flower has 2 crimson styles that stick out at the top. These have sticky areas (stigmas) that collect the pollen that is released from the male catkins.

Once pollinated, nuts start to form, often in clusters. These start as white nuts but eventually turn brown.

Squirrels love hazelnuts so if you want to collect them for yourself you have to get in there quick!

Hazel trees are often coppiced – that is, they are left to grow for up to 7 years and then cut back down to the ground, they then regrow. When left to grow without coppicing, trees can reach a height of 12m and live for up to 80 years; if coppiced, hazel can live for several hundred years.


Coppiced Hazel wood is used for fencing hurdles, walking sticks, baskets, furniture, thatching spars, pea sticks and bean poles. The nuts are used in lots of foods or can be eaten as they are (once shelled!)

Biodiversity rating:

  • Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of lots of moths. Where hazel is coppiced, the open, wildflower-rich habitat support lots of butterflies
  • Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler.
  • Where hazel is not coppiced and is left undisturbed such as in the ancient Atlantic hazel woods of Scotland’s rainforest zone, disturbance-sensitive bryophytes and lichens
  • Hazel has long been associated with the dormouse (also known as the hazel dormouse). Not only are hazelnuts eaten by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but in spring the leaves feed caterpillars, which dormice also eat.
  • Hazelnuts are also eaten by woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeons, jays and small mammals.
  • Hazel flowers provide early pollen as a food for bees. However, bees find it difficult to collect and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen of wind-pollinated hazel is not sticky and each grain actually repels against another.
  • The trunks are often covered in mosses, liverworts and lichens, and the fiery milkcap fungus grows in the soil beneath.

Mythology and symbolism:

The Hazel tree was considered by the ancient Celtic peoples to be a tree of knowledge. The nuts were considered to be “receptacles of wisdom”. It was also called the “poet’s tree” and was associated with with “faerie lore”, to sit under the tree was said to transport you into the realms of mystery and magic!

There is an ancient tale that nine hazel trees grew around a sacred pool, dropping nuts into the water which were eaten by some salmon which absorbed the wisdom. 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, as it was cooking, hot juice from the fish splashed onto the apprentice’s thumb, which he instinctively thrust into his mouth to cool, taking on 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.

Irish stamp of Fionn Mac Cumhail and the salmon of wisdom