Minnesota is home to North America's two wild hazelnuts, the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) and the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). Both are thicket–forming shrubs with slender, woody stems and doubly toothed, elliptical leaves. They are most easily distinguished by the green leafy husks, or bracts, that house the nuts themselves. American hazelnut typically grows a two–part bract just long enough to enclose the nut, while beaked hazelnut sports a longer, trumpet–shaped bract that inspires its
Habitat and Range:
Both our native hazelnuts reside mainly in the forested regions of Minnesota. Although scarce in the northeastern Arrowhead region, American hazelnut is at home throughout Minnesota's hardwood and boreal forest zones, and part of the tallgrass prairie zone. It is tolerant of sun and drier soils and can form colonies in prairies. Beaked hazelnut generally thrives in shadier locations with higher soil moisture. It ranges across the state except for the sparsely forested southwest, and it is a dominant understory shrub in many forest types.
American and beaked hazelnuts play important roles in Minnesota's ecosystems. The highly nutritious nuts are coveted by many birds and mammals, including bears, blue jays, woodpeckers, chipmunks, and squirrels. The catkins are an important winter food source for grouse, and buds and twigs are browsed by deer, rabbits, and moose.
These hardy members of the birch family are abundant in Minnesota and are species of least concern.
Harvesting and Eating:
Shady locations may yield a harvest, but sun exposure seems to enhance nut density. Seek American hazelnuts in open sunny locations, and beaked hazelnuts on the edges of forest openings and roadsides. The bristly nut clusters are usually tucked under the leaves at the tops of hazelnut bushes or near the ends of branches.
Minnesota's hazelnuts usually ripen from late August to early September. Once they do, they are soon snatched up by animals. Fortunately for us, when the husks begin to dry and fade to brown, the nuts are ripe but not yet sought by our wild competitors. Confirm ripeness by peeling them open to find a browning nut that separates easily from husk.
Strip the husks from the nuts within a couple of days. Arrange the nuts in a single layer to dry and to discourage mold. Allow them to dry for a few weeks while protected from rodents.
Raw wild hazelnuts don't taste like much, but roasting brings out their characteristic hazelnut flavor. Roast them for 30 to 35 minutes on a tray in the oven at 225 degrees. Roasted and stored, they will last many months. They are good eaten plain, in cookies, added to salads, or wherever cultivated hazelnuts, sometimes known as filberts, might be used.
Roy Heilman, outdoors writer