Monday, 27 February 2012

Pollen dust heralds sweet breakfast spread


Two whole hazelnuts in every 15 grams - that's what it says on the label of this jar. A shame the Brits living around here after the last Ice Age didn't have access to the American Theobroma cacao. Otherwise they could have created this oddly popular breakfast spread, invented in Italy in the late twentieth century.

A pretty pointless 'what if' I know but it helps me lead into the fact that pollen records show that hazel (Corylus) was the one of the first trees to return to Britain when temperatures increased after the last Ice Age. Very soon hazels dominated the forests of post-glacial Europe (until the oak displaced them around 6000 years ago according to pollen studied in French peat bogs).

The Common Hazel, Corylus avellana, is still a widespread tree in these parts. Around this time of year, lamb's tails, more techinically described as catkins of male flowers, dangle in the breeze, occasionally letting off a drift of pollen. If you look carefully you can see the pollen dust in this picture taken after Lynda kindly tapped the branch with a big stick.


The female flower is more subtle and all you really see is a tiny tuft of red, the receptive style waiting for a pollen grain to drift its way. You should be able to make them out in my next picture, just above the male catkin.


The hazel featured here is the Corkscrew Hazel cultivar, Corylus avellana 'Contorta'. It's very popular as a garden plant, both for its wacky contorted branching and these glimmering catkins. It's also called Harry Lauder's Walkingstick. I understand Harry was popular Scottish entertainer in the early 20th century.


Despite not discovering Nutella, according to some notes prepared by Kew, the ancient Brits did find the hazel a useful tree. In Celtic folklore it was known as the 'tree of knowledge', although the knowledge gained seems a bit suspect: keep a hazelnut in your pocket to avoid elfin tricks, cure toothache with a double hazelnut and fend off witches with the same malformed nut.

The Stone Agers also ate the nut, which makes sense at least after the last Ice Age given how common the trees were back then. Coppicing too has a long history, to produce small, straight poles for fencing. You can see some modern day coppicing at both Kew Gardens and Wakehurst Place, and various Hazel species and cultivars on display - the Contorted Hazel features in Wakehurst Place's Winter Garden.

Of course you can wander around the UK and find hazels in lots of woodlands and hedgerows. I'm sure there are some in the Yorkshire landscapes by David Hockney, currently on exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Maybe the purple tree? We went to see the exhibition today but of course didn't take this picture (photography is not allowed).



4 comments:

Merricks said...

Thanks, Tim, for an interesting post.
(A request: This reader would have liked to have seen the coppiced hazels, too...)
PS any chance of organising a readable word verification system.

Tim Entwisle said...

Thanks for feedback as always. I don't have an image of the coppicing but will always do my best to illustrate what I can. As to 'readable work verification system' - you'll have to elaborate??

Tim Entwisle said...

...No need...I think I know what you mean. Not sure I can do much about that side of this site!

Tim Entwisle said...

Just before I sign off for the night: http://www.kew.org/visit-wakehurst/whats-on/introduction-to-coppicing-27march2012.htm