When people who are trying to “eat local” or use various versions of regional diets ask “What to do about nuts?”, the most popular recommendation was hazelnuts up to a few years ago.
Hazelnuts have been farmed in various parts of BC since at least the 1930s[i]. Commercial cultivation in the Pacific Northwest involves growing Corylus avellana, the European hazelnut. In Oregon its introduction has been traced back to the 1800s so there is a good possibility that it arrived in British Columbia earlier than 1930[ii].
The hazel grows naturally as a bush or multi-stemmed, shrubby tree. In Turkey and southern Europe. It has been grown in this manner for centuries. But in commercial production, they are usually grown as single-trunk trees. The nuts, which grow in pairs or in small clusters, are smooth, round, and hard-shelled. Each nut is enclosed in a green, leafy sheath. The trees are quite hardy but prefer moderate climatic conditions so in BC they are predominantly grown in the Fraser Valley and the lower mainland.
Farming hazelnuts in BC was promoted in the late 20th century and by 2000, there were over 800 acres of hazelnut trees in the Fraser Valley producing over 300 tons of nuts per year, mostly around Chilliwack and Agassiz[iii].
Henry Wigand is often mentioned for providing leadership, development and promotion of the B.C. hazelnut industry. He established the B.C. Hazelnut Growers Association, a group representing hazelnut farmers and promotes research, grower education, marketing and promotion of hazelnut and hazelnut products[iv]. At its peak, BC had about 1,200 acres of hazelnuts, with over 800 acres in the Fraser Valley alone, yielding on average 1,012,000 pounds per year.
Then, Eastern Filbert Blight made its way to BC. It had been swirling across North America affecting hazelnut farms in the US and Canada. It hit Ontario first and arrived in BC in the early 2000s. It is suspected that it was carried by the wind. Hazelnuts are wind-pollinated. By 2010 it had destroyed 90 per cent of B.C.’s hazelnut orchards reducing the average provincial yield of nuts from more than 450 tonnes per year to around 18 tonnes per year.[v]
Since 2018, the BC Ministry of Agriculture been actively promoting a renewal of hazelnut farming with funding from its ‘Grow BC’ Hazelnut Renewal Program. That program provides financial support to remove infected trees and to plant new disease-resistant hazelnut trees in the province.[vi]. Eastern filbert blight, which could have been the death knell of the industry, is slowly being defeated as farmers replace dying orchards with sturdy, disease-resistant varieties coming out of Oregon State. The 2018 harvest yielded 40,000 pounds, a number expected to grow exponentially in years to come[vii].
There is world wide demand for hazelnuts. For example, the global confectionery giant Nutella maker Ferrero which buys about 25 percent of the world’s hazelnuts is looking for new markets as it tries to reduce its dependence on Turkey as a supplier. Turkey’s volatile prices, shrinking crop and accusations of exploitation of migrant worker including children have Ferrero and other multinational corporations looking for new suppliers.[viii] The future of hazelnut farming in British Columbia looks bright.
What you might not know is that out of the over 25 species around the world described in the genus Corylus, only two species of hazelnut are native to Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia describes them as the beaked hazelnut, Corylus cornuta found from British Columbia to Newfoundland and the American hazelnut (C. americana) found from southern Manitoba to southwest Quebec.[ix] Corylus cornuta possesses valuable resistance to eastern filbert blight and have been useful in breeding programs to pass on hardiness and disease resistance.[x] [xi].
The native hazelnut bushes in BC are varieties or sub-species of Corylus cornuta. The Center for Forest Conservation Genetics at UBC reports that the cornuta (beaked hazelnut) ranges from the interior of British Columbia eastward to the Atlantic coast with the variety californica (California hazel) occuring from British Columbia to California. In British Columbia var. californica occurs on the lower mainland and on Vancouver Island with a disjunct population, possibly of anthropogenic origin, near Hazelton in northwestern British Columbia[xii]. I found the taxonomy a bit confusing but this appears to be common as Holstein, Tamer and Weigend (2018) found “in spite of the economic importance, the taxonomy of Corylus is poorly understood and even the wild ancestors of the cultivars are still enigmatic”(p. 2). [xiii]
Corylus means “horn.” The “horn” or “beak” refers to the husk that encloses and projects past the nut. Beaked hazelnut is easily recognized by its rounded oval, fuzzy leaves with doubly saw-toothed margins that turn a bright yellow in fall. Male catkins appear before the leaves. The spherical nuts are enclosed in a husk that projects beyond the nut to form the “beak.” The beak can be 2-4 times the length of the nut, but on the California Hazelnut it is much shorter, usually less than twice the length of the nut[xiv]. The native beaked hazelnut in British Columbia is more shrub-like than tree-like, with multiple stems per bush. It can grow up to 10 meters tall and produces only two–five nuts per cluster. The nuts are slightly smaller than the commercial forms.
The beaked hazelnut was used for thousands of years by Indigenous people including many BC First Nations (virtually all the coastal and interior Salishan peoples, Dakelh, Tsilhqot’in, Ktunaxa, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, and upriver Tsimshian)[xv]. They were an important food source, twisted twigs were used to tie things, the stems were used for weaving baskets, baby carriers and fish traps, and straight stems were used for arrows.[xvi] BC Aboriginal peoples buried the nuts for 10 days to allow the husks to rot away or sometimes they were able to find nuts already de-husked in squirrels nests[xvii].
Armstrong, Wal’ceckwu Dixon and Turner (2018) note that the ethnographic record of how wild plants were traditionally managed and used is fleeting. So much has been lost through colonization. But by combining ethnographic information, modern and ancient genetics, archaeological surveys, and ethnoecological studies, they have been able to gain many insights into the multi-dimensional ways in which people interacted with and related to hazelnuts. For example, linguistic evidence supports the hypothesis that long distance transplanting of hazelnut, from the Salish region to the Ts’msyen, Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en regions resulted in ecologically disjunct populations (e.g., in Hazelton BC, hence the name). Hazel bushes were traditionally managed by fire, and have numerous uses for people including as food (nut), for fuel (oily shells). They were an important medicine, the root produced an intense blue dye, and young switches were used for weaving and construction.[xviii].
Hazelnuts were usually harvested in late summer, sometimes from the caches of squirrels. The name for “squirrel” in some Indigenous languages relates to these nuts. For example, the Nisga’a name for hazelnuts, ts’ak’a ts’inhlik, translates as “dish of squirrel.” Large quantities of hazelnuts were stored for winter, or put aside to be traded for other foods. Canada’s wild species of hazelnut are still eaten today, but have largely given way to the commercial filbert.[xix]
I found the information about the disjunct distribution in the Skeena valley interesting. I have family connections to Hazelton and lived there myself in the late 1960s and 70s. I knew the town was named in the 1860s for the hazel bushes found around “The Forks”, at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers where a settlement was marked out. However, although I knew this was Gitxsan territory, I had never considered how they got there or even considered that the they may have been purposely planted. (This is probably an example of settler ignorance).
I can also relate to the pesky squirrels, squirrelling away all the hazelnuts such that trying to raid their stashes is the only chance of getting a supply. There was a tree on the street where I lived in White Rock but we were never able to beat the squirrels to the harvest or find their stash!
[ii] Oregon State University Extension Growing Hazelnuts in the Pacific Northwest https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/catalog/files/project/pdf/em9072.pdf
[iii] O’Dell, T. E. & Argen, H. (2013) Current Research on New Hazelnut Varieties in British Columbia, in Kempler, C., Kabaluk, T. & Frey, L. (Eds.), 55thAnnual Horticulture Growers’ Short Course Proceedings. http://www.naturetechnursery.com
[iv] Brown, M. (2012). Gellatly Nut Farm Regional Part Tree Inventory and Heritage Orchard Management Plan. B.A. Blackwell & Associates Ltd. https://www.regionaldistrict.com/media/93047/gnfheritageorchardmanagementplan.pdf.
[v] https://bchga.ca/ BC Hazelnut Growers Association; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/hazelnut-farming-rebirth-fraser-valley-bc-1.5344557
[xiii] Holstein N., Tamer S. el & Weigend M. 2018. The nutty world of hazel names – a critical taxonomic checklist of the genus Corylus L. (Betulaceae). European Journal of Taxonomy 409: 1‒45. https://doi.org/10.5852/ejt.2018.409
[xviii] https://www.chelseygeralda.com/traditional-hazelnut-management; Armstrong, C. G. Wal’ceckwu Dixon, M. & Turner, N. (2018). Management and traditional production of beaked hazelnut (k’áp’xw-az’, Corylus cornuta; Betulaceae) in British Columbia. Human Ecology, 46(4), 547-559.