The Giving Tree


There are a handful of hazel trees down by the stream in the shade of the neighbouring copse and I have just gathered a bunch of catkins to remind me that spring is on the way. Hazel is one of my favourite British trees, its catkins already formed by the end of the year and lengthening now to provide us with one of the first signs of movement. The branches are arching over the water, the creamy catkins hanging almost vertically once they are elongated and producing pollen.

When we were looking at the property last spring, I noticed that they were the ideal host to herb Paris, ferns, wild garlic and bluebells, but they are a well-behaved tree in a domestic setting, too, modestly proportioned and easily curtailed if they overreach themselves. Their roots are non-invasive, so they also associate well with other woodlanders, such as epimedium, hellebore and snowdrop, and once they are in leaf their foliage is soft, cool on the eye and light enough to dapple shadow.

Though it is hugely tolerant of a wide range of conditions, hazel is a woodlander by nature, favouring the cool, moist atmosphere where ferns and mosses grow. Plant a hazel in open ground and it will sulk for five years before it gains enough reserve in the root to start increasing its canopy, but in the company of other trees its limbs will grow long and slender, several dozen from the base. Their willingness to multi-stem is why they make such excellent trees for coppicing and why for the best part of 1,000 years they have driven an industry of woodsmen here in the British Isles. Cut to the base on an eight- to 10-year rotation, the "rods" can be split for poles for hurdle-making and the brushwood has multiple uses, too, for besoms, faggots and pea sticks.

For the most pliable wood, and to save the energy in the bowl of the tree for re-growth, it is best to coppice hazel in the first half of the winter. The cuts are made low and close to the ground to encourage growth to push up and away straight from the base and where there are deer or rabbits or livestock, the re-growth is protected with a "dead hedge" of offcuts so the new growth is protected. In the right conditions this will make almost 6ft in the first year to rise out of harm's way and replenish the roots with energy.

I could count my own hazel trees on one hand, but I would like to have several dozen trees so that I can coppice four or five a year on a rotation to keep me in poles for my beans, twigs for the peas and kindling to light the fires. I have earmarked a section of one of the lower fields that feels like it might be a good place to start, for it is sheltered and already in the influence of the neighbouring woodland, and I am already looking forward to clearing this area of bramble so that I can set them out come next autumn.

Up on the sunny slopes I will also be sure to include a few to feather the garden-to-be seamlessly into the hedgerows, but I will be tempted to include Corylus avellana "Purpurea", the purple filbert, as the catkins are stained darkly with smoky-pink. The newly emerging foliage is as dark as damsons and ruby red with the light through it later in the season. It is also a more elegant option than the more usually offered C maxima "Purpurea", as there is space in the branches, which makes the general impression of darkness appear lighter.

Hazel rarely seems out of season, its cool summer foliage giving way to hazelnuts, which are clearly visible by August, but you will have to be vigilant if you are to get there before the squirrels in September. The fruit ripens before the foliage turns a buttery yellow, and if you do manage to fill a bowlful before they are poached, you will notice how very different the nuts are to shop-bought fruits. They are wet and milky, gently sweet, and wonderful raw as a crunch in a peppery watercress salad.

It is hard to see why this humble native isn't better integrated into our lives, but after all these years of admiring them from a distance, I feel a lightness at being able to live with them up close. I have coppiced my first tree to set the cycle in place, hauling the wood away to be divvied up into its various uses, and I cannot tell you how good it feels to plan them into my future.

Image: Karen Robinson for The Observer
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