I spend a lot of time outside, hiking either with Stella or just by myself. I love to explore and spend time in many different ecosystems, but by far, my favorite is the redwood forest. If my first love is hiking in the redwoods, than my second might be finding a free, tasty snack that nature has provided. Lately, I’ve been able to have both, because right now my hikes have been combined with foraging for hazelnuts!
How to Identify Hazelnuts:
The nuts that I’ve been gathering are California hazel, or Corylus cornuta. There are 15 species of hazelnuts, but only this one is native to California. European varieties are known as filberts, while ones native to America are known as hazelnuts. All are edible, even the ones planted as ornamentals in landscapes (but you likely won’t see many, if any nuts). See if there is a variety that is native to your area!
California hazelnuts are a common deciduous understory shrub of shaded forests of the Coast Range, and are often on banks near streams and creeks. They reach from 3-10 feet high, and have an open, spreading appearance. If you look up though the canopy to the sky, they can appear almost lacy. The leaves are arranged alternate on smooth, slender stems. The leaves are soft and fuzzy, and have sharply pointed tips and fine double-toothed margins.
These shrubs bloom in January though March, with tiny inconspicuous red flowers. Don’t expect a show stopper of beauty, you can barely see the blooms. By late summer, if pollinated, the flowers will have developed into the edible nuts. In October, you’ll also likely see the start of the hanging catkins, which are the male flowers that pollinate the females though wind. The nuts are enclosed in a papery-like husk, that has a pointed beak at the end.
How to Forage for Hazelnuts:
To gather, simply pick the nuts off the branch. Then, remove the husk, and peel away to find the nut. Many of the husks are covered in fine hairs, which some people find irritating, myself included. Nothing major, but its a bit like touching fiberglass insulation. If you find yourself sensitive, you can use gloves or carefully rub the nut on your pants to brush off the hairs.
While the shrub is common and plentiful, the nuts are not. Whether competition from the birds and squirrels, or just sparse production, I rarely come across more than a few on each shrub.
Looking for the nuts becomes a bit of a scavenger hunt, and you can’t help but feel like Mother Nature has awarded you a prize when you find one. You likely won’t find enough to bring home to make a meal, however, the few you can find makes a great trail snack! Use a rock or your metal water canteen to break open the shell and pick out the meat, or take home to crack with a nut cracker or a hammer. Even if you come across a stand that is loaded, please don’t take them all. Hazelnuts provide valuable food for wildlife.
Locally, I’ve been foraging for hazelnuts on the property of a client in west Healdsburg, and in Cascade Canyon Open Space in Marin. There are beautiful hazelnut shrubs in Armstrong Woods, but I’ve never found any nuts, at least not on the branches that overhang the trails. There is, however, a gorgeous specimen that is growing from an overturned redwood root ball on the forest floor.