Are Hazelnuts Native To North America? A Comprehensive Guide

Hazelnuts are a beloved snack and ingredient in many dishes, but have you ever wondered where they come from?

Are they native to North America or were they brought over from another continent?

In this article, we’ll explore the origins of hazelnuts and take a closer look at the American hazelnut, a species that grows throughout the eastern and central United States and parts of Canada.

From their uses by indigenous peoples to their popularity in modern cuisine, hazelnuts have a rich history that is worth exploring.

So grab a handful of your favorite hazelnuts and let’s dive in!

Are Hazelnuts Native To North America

Hazelnuts are not native to North America, but there are a couple of species that are native to the continent. The American hazelnut and the beaked hazelnut were both eaten by indigenous peoples in North America.

The versatility of the hazelnut kernel was demonstrated by the many uses made of it by these peoples. Hazelnuts are a rich source of fats, protein, and carbohydrates, making them an excellent energy source. However, they lack fiber and moisture, so eating them in excess can cause digestive disturbances.

People with access to hazelnuts must have learned quickly to mix them with grains, meats, and vegetables. Today, hazelnuts are best known as a component of sweets, but they have had an epic career in savories as well. Hazelnuts also produce oil, flour, and liqueur.

The History Of Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have been used as a food source for indigenous peoples in the Northern Hemisphere since the glacial age. Many tribes, including the Cherokee, Chippewa, Dakota, and Iroquois, used hazelnuts for a variety of purposes. They were used in dishes such as soup, bread, and corn pudding, and were also eaten raw, either alone or with honey. Nuts were stored as food for winter and crushed to make a drink.

Hazelnuts also had a variety of non-food uses. The Iroquois tribe mixed the oil with bear grease and used the mixture to keep mosquitos away. The twigs were used for baskets and broom making, and the bark was used to make black dye for drumming sticks. The bark could also be used to help heal cuts and for eye pain. It was taken as an antihemorrhagic and for prenatal strength and had a variety of other uses as well.

In prehistoric Ireland, it is likely that people developed many different ways of processing hazelnut kernels due to their wide versatility. Hazelnut trees are native to the eastern half of North America from Louisiana to Georgia in the south to Manitoba and Quebec in the north. The native hazelnut trees (Corylus americana) are hardy, disease-resistant, and are very tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. However, there is currently a shortage of nuts.

The hazelnut industry in Oregon began with settlers bringing C. avellana L. from England and France in the 1850s. The Willamette Valley is now home to 99.9 percent of the U.S. commercial hazelnut industry due to its fertile soil and mild climate. Hazelnut trees are unusual in that they pollinate during winter when their catkins elongate and pollen travels by wind to tiny red flowers on the branches. Varieties of hazelnut, chosen by farmers according to the trees’ ability to pollinate one another, are planted in evenly spaced rows.

In a strange industry turn, America imports many tons of inexpensive hazelnuts from China to meet the demand. Because of the demand by Eastern Europeans, they are being replaced by the Corylus avellana that more commonly grows in Europe. Since Americans export so many hazelnuts, we have to compensate for the loss with inexpensive hazelnuts grown in Western China. The plants that hazelnuts grow on are sprawling fields of shrubs. They do not even require ladders to get to the branches like other nuts have, making them a favorite for four-legged animals to eat from. The nuts from wild plants, with few exceptions, are small and hardly worth gathering. The producing varieties of the hazelnut trees grow so many more hazelnuts than the wild varieties that their numbers are shrinking. The wild nut trees are still abundant and furnish food for all kinds of wildlife.

Hazelnuts In Indigenous American Culture

Many indigenous tribes in North America, including the Cherokee, Chippewa, Dakota, Iroquois, and many others, used hazelnuts for a variety of purposes. Hazelnuts were used as food in a variety of dishes, including soup, bread, and corn pudding. They were also eaten raw, either alone or with honey, and stored as food for winter. The Iroquois tribe even crushed fresh nut meats and boiled them for use as a drink.

Hazelnuts were also used in other ways. They were used as a black dye, often mixed with butternut, to make drumming sticks. The twigs of the hazelnut tree were used for baskets and broom making. The Iroquois tribe mixed the oil with bear grease and used the mixture to keep mosquitoes away.

Hazelnuts also had a variety of medical uses. One common use was to use the inner bark to induce vomiting. An infusion of the branches and leaves was also used as a gastrointestinal aid for intestinal disorders. Children were given a decoction of bark to help with teething, and stems were used to make necklaces that also helped with teething. The bark could be used to help heal cuts and for eye pain. It was taken as an antihemorrhagic and for prenatal strength and had a variety of other uses as well.

The wide versatility of the hazelnut kernel as demonstrated by the uses made of it by the North American indigenous peoples indicates that these peoples likely developed many different ways of processing hazelnut kernels. Today, we can still appreciate the value of hazelnuts in our diets and in other areas such as basketry, garden structures such as trellises, and many other applications.

The Spread Of Hazelnuts Across The World

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are the fruit of the hazel tree. The European hazelnut, also known as the common hazelnut, is the most popular variety for commercial production. These nuts are native to Europe and western Asia. The European hazel trees first took root in Ireland about 10,000 years ago.

Hazelnuts have spread across the world through domestication and hybridization. Many improved varieties are the basis of today’s commercial hazelnut industry. Hazelnuts spread through western Europe into England and east through Turkey. They were also brought to North America and are flourishing in Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington.

Despite there being hazelnuts native to North America, the European variety appears to be the most preferred. Scientists are working to pump up domestic hazelnut production by cross-breeding European hazelnuts with native varieties to create a commercial-quality variety that is resistant to disease and can thrive when planted in America.

Today, there are many varieties of hazelnuts worldwide, including beaked hazelnuts and American hazelnuts, both native to North America. Native American Hazelnuts are found throughout the Midwest, East, and Southeast of the United States and Canada. The spread of hazelnuts across the world has made them a popular nut for both sweet and savory dishes.

The American Hazelnut: A Closer Look

The American hazelnut, also known as Corylus americana, is a native shrub that is easy to grow and produces edible nuts in late summer. This thicket-forming shrub is excellent for naturalizing, woodland gardens, and shade areas. Its showy male flowers, or catkins, add early spring interest, and its dark green leaves turn a beautiful kaleidoscope of colors in the fall.

The American hazelnut can thrive in a wide range of conditions, making it a good choice for hedgerows or windbreaks. It can be pruned at any time of year, and its deep green leaves turn copper and yellow in autumn. Highly attractive to wildlife, the nuts are eaten by squirrels, foxes, deer, northern bobwhite, ruffed grouse, turkey, woodpeckers, and pheasants. The leaves, twigs, and catkins are browsed by rabbits and deer. The male catkins are a winter food for turkey and ruffed grouse. The dense, low growth habit provides cover and nesting sites for birds and other wildlife. It hosts numerous lepidoptera, including Polyphemus and Io moths.

Except for the nuts themselves, the American hazelnut plant is fairly non-descript. It has simple leaves with an alternate pattern that are broad and largely oval or even slightly heart-shaped. The edges are doubly serrate with several smaller teeth between a larger tooth and can be somewhat wavy. The bark is a plain grayish-brown color.

The fruit or seed of the American hazelnut is called a nut. They develop from the female flowers and come in clusters of up to five nuts. They usually ripen in early to mid-August and are loved by squirrels. The male flower is called a catkin and is generally visible in April or May. The female flower is an inconspicuous thing that also blooms in the spring but looks an awful lot like a bud on the stem of the plant, except with a bit of red tinge to the tip.

Hazelnuts In Modern Cuisine

Hazelnuts have become a popular ingredient in modern cuisine, adding a unique flavor and texture to both sweet and savory dishes. Hazelnuts are commonly used in baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, and pastries, as well as in spreads like Nutella. However, chefs have also found creative ways to incorporate hazelnuts into savory dishes.

In Minneapolis, hazelnuts grow wild and are used by Chef Jim Christiansen of Heyday restaurant to add a nutty crunch to a fried egg dish served with chanterelles, green garlic, and blackberries. Hazelnuts can also be added to salads for an earthy crunch, such as in a roasted parsnip salad with blue cheese and a wheat beer vinaigrette. Chefs have even added hazelnuts to pasta dishes, like butternut squash ravioli with oregano-hazelnut pesto.

Hazelnut paste is also a popular ingredient in processed foods such as ice cream, confectionery, and bakery products. The rich, nutty flavor of hazelnuts adds depth and complexity to these products.

Not only do hazelnuts add flavor to dishes, but they also have health benefits. Eating hazelnuts, along with other tree nuts, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease due to their store of monounsaturated fat, vitamin E, and minerals like copper and magnesium. Additionally, the high fat, protein, and fiber composition of nuts gives them the “fullness factor,” making them a satisfying and healthy snack option.

Hazelnut Farming And Sustainability

Hazelnut farming has gained popularity in recent years due to the growing demand for hazelnuts in the market. Hazelnut trees are hardy, disease-resistant, and tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions, making them an ideal crop for sustainable agriculture.

One of the challenges of hazelnut farming is the susceptibility of European hazelnuts to Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), a fungus that can devastate hazelnut orchards. However, American hazelnuts are resistant to EFB, making them an attractive alternative for hazelnut farmers.

Hazel trees require 30 inches of water per year once established, but they are very tolerant of year-to-year variances in rainfall. This makes them an ideal crop for areas with inconsistent rainfall patterns. Hazel trees can be grown as a bush or as a tree, and present commercial hazelnut production is with tree form only.

Hazelnut farming is also environmentally sustainable. Hazel trees sequester carbon and have a relatively dense and shallow root system that efficiently extracts nutrients from the soil. Hazel trees require only a couple hundred pounds of fertilizer per year, which can be provided by renewable sources, cover crops, or commercial fertilizer. Hazels may need supplemental micronutrients like boron or iron from time to time, which can be determined via leaf analysis.

In conclusion, hazelnuts are not native to North America, but there are native species that can be grown sustainably as a crop. Hazelnut farming is environmentally friendly and requires minimal fertilization and irrigation compared to other crops. With the growing demand for hazelnuts in the market, hazelnut farming presents an attractive opportunity for sustainable agriculture.

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