Hazelnuts, also known as filberts grow in regions all over the world, in cool, moist environments. In Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean areas, Corylus avellana grows well. In the United States, there are many native species but the predominant commercial tree is still Corylus Avellana. The largest producer of hazelnuts is Turkey, followed by Italy, Azerbaijan, and then the United States.

Ancient Hazelnuts

In the ancient times, fossil records from several areas in the world dated filberts back thousands of years. In China, filberts were uncovered showing they were one of five sacred foods prehistorically. Other staples of prehistory included other nuts similar to filberts, seeds, and if early humans were lucky, they could happen upon a ripe fruit or even protein such as large fish species of the era or birds' eggs.

Records in Scandinavia show hazelnuts shells in areas dating back 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. In 1995, a midden in Scotland was uncovered producing hundreds of burnt hazelnut shells in a pit that dated back 6,000 BC. If a compost pile is a living record of your garden, a midden is essentially a record of a human settlements. Archaeologists refer to such sites, which are often dung piles or refuse heaps as "kitchens" when exploring the agricultural and dietary habits of ancient peoples.

As hazelnuts were often more abundant than animal meat, the cultural record includes many myths and folkloric instances of the humble hazelnut. It doesn't hurt that this ancient nut is useful beyond just a food staple as materials were used to craft baskets and other items.

Hazelnuts Across Different Cultures

Hazelnuts in woven basket

The ancient Celts or Druids believed many different trees to be mystical expressions of wisdom and divine inspiration. An old Gaelic word for filberts is “Cno” and is similar to the Gaelic word for wisdom, “Cnocach”. In one Celtic tale, nine sacred hazelnut trees surround a sacred pool. The tree dropped their nuts into the pool where salmon ate the nuts and acquired the nut’s mystical wisdom. It is said the number of spots on the side of fish showed how many nuts the fish had eaten. Salmon were revered by the Druids and were believed to pass their prophetic powers to the person who ate the fish.

In Ireland, the hazelnut continued to be recognized as part of the ancient sacred landscape. The Irish revered the hazelnut and reportedly divided the Island into three parts which were ruled by three Gods: MacCecht (son of plough ), MacCuill(son of Hazel), and MacGreine (son of the sun).

In Scotland, Ireland and England, hazelnuts were associated with sacred pagan sites. In prehistoric times, these sites were often understood to represent the entrance to the other world. There is a legend told today that the Abbey at Glastonbury was originally built from hazelnut branches. Several other well known monasteries were associated with hazelnut groves. Pagan peoples believed the spirits guarded the nuts and the trees themselves.

In Scotland, the Hind Etin, is a ballard about a spirit who guards the nuts of a sacred hazelnut tree. In England, special names were even given to the guardians of the unripe nuts,”Melsh Deck” and “ Chem-Milk Peg”.

The Romans and Greeks have record of filberts also. Pliny apparently recorded that hazelnuts came from Damascus and that the Romans frequently gathered the nuts for food. Interestingly the Greeks used the nuts to treat coughs and colds, similar to what Native Californians used for them for thousands of miles away.

In more contemporary times, the hazelnut became more important in confectionary in the 1800s in Italy. In Turin, Italy, due to trading restrictions with the English, an Italian chocolatier, Pietro Ferrero created Pasta Gianduja. This was named after a carnival character from Piedmont, an area known for its hazelnut confectionary. Due to a shortage of chocolate, hazelnuts were added to chocolate mixes as fillers. The Italians call this chocolate,” Gianduja”. It contained 30 percent hazelnut paste. These days, hazelnut chocolate spreads are common in the grocery store.

After World War ll, Pasta Gianduja was sold in a hard loaf that could be sliced and put on bread. In 1949, cocoa butter was accidently mixed into the Gianduja creating a soft spread. This spread was introduced into the market in 1964 and became the popular hazelnut spread, Nutella®.

In the United States, in pre-European times, Native American tribal groups utilized the native hazelnut that grow in the eastern woodlands, as well as in California and Oregon and in other areas where Corylus cornuta was found. California indigenous groups used Corylus cornuta as roasted nuts for oils, in cakes and for eating raw. The nut milk was used medicinally for coughs and colds and the roots were used as a blue dye for fabrics. The branches were harvested in late summer and early fall and were utilized for many things such as basketry, arrowshafts and more.

In Washington state, the Duwamish Tribe who lived in Tukwila, translated as "land of the hazelnut," used hazelnuts in similar ways to those in California did. They made cakes, nut milks, and used the branches for basketry and arrowshafts. The Yurok tribe from N.W California in the Klamath River Basin ground the nuts to make flour.

Surviving the American Revolution

Field of Hazelnut Trees

As Europeans immigrated to America, they brought domestic hazelnut trees to the United States. The first commercial nursery was established in Flushing, New York by Robert Prince in 1737. During the revolutionary war, the newly elected President, George Washington, sent troops to defend the nursery and the filbert trees and newly acquired Barcelona Filberts, imported from Spain from the British soldiers.

When Lewis and Clark explored the western United States, they brought back native hazelnut specimens which were then grown in Prince’s nursery in New York.

Worldwide the history and folklore of the hazelnut offers us a wide range of stories, uses, and understanding of the wealth of this tree. The remarkable history of this tree enriches our holiday tradition and everyday enjoyment.