Quick facts

Common name: hazel

Scientific name: Corylus avellana

Family: Betulaceae

Origin: native

Hazel is often coppiced, but when left to grow, trees can reach a height of 12m and live for up to 80 years (if coppiced, hazel can live for several hundred years). It has a smooth, grey-brown, bark, which peels with age, and bendy, hairy stems. Leaf buds are oval, blunt and hairy.

Look out for: leaves which are soft to the touch as a result of the downy hairs on the underside. Hazel is often coppiced.

Identified in winter by: its nuts, which are each held in a short, leafy husk which encloses about three quarters of the nut. Small, green catkins can be present in autumn.

What does hazel look like?

Hazel leaves on branch

Credit: Robert Read / WTML

Leaves

Round to oval, doubly toothed, hairy and pointed at the tip. Leaves turn yellow before falling in autumn.

Hazel male catkins tiny female flowers

Credit: Ross Hoddinott / naturepl.com

Flowers

Hazel is monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers are found on the same tree, although hazel flowers must be pollinated by pollen from other hazel trees. The yellow male catkins appear before the leaves and hang in clusters from mid-February. Female flowers are tiny and bud-like with red styles.

Hazel fruit opened

Credit: Ben Lee / WTML

Fruits

Once pollinated by wind, the female flowers develop into oval fruits which hang in groups of one to four. They mature into a nut with a woody shell surrounded by a cup of leafy bracts (modified leaves).

Watch hazel budburst

Not to be confused with:

English elm (Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’) which has similar leaves, though English elm leaves are roughly hairy, unlike soft hazel leaves. Elm leaves also have an asymmetric leaf base.

Child and parent looking at autumn leaves with magnifying glass

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Hazel and other saplings at Geordie's Wood

Credit: Laurie Campbell / WTML

Where to find hazel

Hazel grows across much of Europe, parts of north Africa and western Asia. In the UK it's often found in the understorey of lowland oak, ash or birch woodland, and in scrub and hedgerows.

Value to wildlife

Hazel leaves provide food for the caterpillars of moths, including the large emerald, small white wave, barred umber and nut-tree tussock. In managed woodland where hazel is coppiced, the open, wildflower-rich habitat supports species of butterfly, particularly fritillaries. Coppiced hazel also provides shelter for ground-nesting birds, such as the nightingale, nightjar, yellowhammer and willow warbler.

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 are a good source of 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

Hazel has a reputation as a magical tree. A hazel rod is supposed to protect against evil spirits, as well as being used as a wand and for water-divining. In some parts of England, hazelnuts were carried as charms and/or held to ward off rheumatism. In Ireland, hazel was known as the 'Tree of Knowledge’, and in medieval times it was a symbol of fertility.

Uses

Hazel wood can be twisted or knotted, and as such it historically had many uses. These included thatching spars, net stakes, water-divining sticks, hurdles and furniture. Hazel was also valued for its nuts, or 'cobs'.

Today, hazel coppice has become an important management strategy in the conservation of woodland habitats for wildlife. The resulting timber is used in lots of ways and is becoming increasingly popular as pea sticks and bean poles used by gardeners.

Hazel was grown in the UK for large-scale nut production until the early 1900s. Cultivated varieties (known as cob nuts) are still grown in Kent, but most of our hazelnuts are now imported.

Threats

The species is not known to suffer from any particular pest or disease, but it may occasionally be attacked by aphids, gall mites and sawflies. Coppiced hazel is susceptible to deer damage if not protected.