Some of the most dazzling flowers this time of year are easily overlooked due to their diminutive size and the fact that they are not found on the ground. The flowers of Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a native shrub, are in this category. The shape and position of the male and female flowers illustrate their respective strategies for successfully producing seeds.
The female flower, located at the tip of the branch (where other branches don’t obstruct it) extends its tiny, star-like pistils into the air in several directions so that they easily collect pollen.
Down below the female flowers hangs the pendulous male catkin, dangling its pollen-laden stamens so that the wind can easily disperse the pollen. Because it is positioned below the female flower, there is a reduced likelihood of self-pollination.
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Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), a multi-stemmed shrub, is named for its fruit — a nut with a tubular husk (a modified leaf known as an involucre) that extends at least an inch beyond the nut, resembling a beak. The surface of the involucre is covered with fine filaments that can irritate the skin. The fruit grows individually as well as in clusters. There are two species of hazel in the Northeast. The other, American Hazel (Corylus americana), lacks the prolonged husk and instead has a short involucre with fringed edges.
The nuts of Beaked Hazelnut may be roasted and eaten — they ripen in August and September. One must be quick to harvest them, however, as they are highly sought after by Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, White-tailed Deer and squirrels, due to being rich in protein and fat. Most (99 percent) of the hazelnuts consumed by the U.S. are from a European species of hazel and are grown in Oregon.
Because of the popularity of hazel nuts, it is surprising to find viable fruits on Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) in mid- to late winter. Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Beavers, Snowshoe Hares, Raccoons, Red Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and White-footed Mice all vie for these delectable nuts.
This multi-stemmed, wind-pollinated shrub bears fruit that is wrapped in a modified leaf (involucre). Beaked Hazel (as opposed to American Hazel, Corylus americana) is named after the tapering beak-shape of its nuts’ involucres. One might suspect that any fruits remaining on hazel shrubs at this time of year must not be edible, but the photographed specimen was very tasty!
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Many shrubs really come into their own in the spring when they flower — not necessarily big, flashy flowers, but more subtle and delicate blossoms, with beautiful colors and designs. Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta) is such a shrub. Its female flowers are now blooming – exquisite little maroon flowers with magenta highlights and pistils that curl this way and that in hopes of catching pollen. One advantage to flowering before leaves are out is that there is less interference with pollen dispersal. The entire flower is less than 1/4” in diameter.