The Hazel appears in the wild more often as more a large bush than a tree with its long, flexible stems growing from the same root. On the young stems the bark is ash-coloured and hairy while older stems become mottled with bright brown and grey. The flowers are amongst the earliest harbingers of the rebirth of spring, even earlier than the snowdrop, and from early January the trees are plentifully decorated with yellow catkins called "lambs tails" (also anciently called agglettes or blowinges). If you look very closely at the buds in late January, you will find the crimson pistols of fertile flowers pushing their way up through some of the scaly buds. A beautiful sight seldom noticed by any but the avid botanist. Once they have shed their pollen, they turn brown and fall off but a few months later re-emerge as bunches of nuts hidden under the expanding summer foliage.
It is at this time that a small beetle, Balaninus nucum-the Hazelnut Weevil, guided by a mysterious instinct, alights onto the Hazel (a tree that it never feeds on as an adult), pierces the tender shell of the nut and lays in it a single egg. The egg lays apparently dormant for several weeks but when the nut has nearly reached maturity, a small white grub emerges and avidly feeds on the nut. Once grown to its full size, and despite having hitherto eaten only soft food, it possesses a powerful set of apparatus for gnawing its way through the nut casing and dropping to the ground. It then buries itself in the earth where it constructs a cell and turns into a pupa only to emerge the following year as a fully mature insect.
The larvae of other insects also feed on the nuts as do squirrels and dormice and it also supports a rare lichen community. The nuthatch displays great ingenuity in procuring a meal from the Hazel tree. It does not possess the means of holding its food while its beak works on penetrating the shell; so it picks up the nut by the stem and carries to a nearby tree, usually an oak. It then fixes the nut into a crack in the bark always selecting a fissure shaped in such a manner that every blow which it deals with its beak wedges the nut more firmly within the crack. In July and August, a time when the woods are generally quieter, a succession of loud and quickly repeated taps announces the Nuthatch at work.
In Ancient times Hazelnuts were collected in a ritual called "going a-nutting on Holy Rood Day" (September 14th) and at Samhain (October 31st or Halloween) were used in a ritual that gave the night an alternative name of "Nutcrack Night". A nut was chosen to bear the name of each unmarried person in the tribe and placed close to the fire until it caught light. The manner in which it burned was divined to predict the future. This is a lesser known form of divination using the hazel. A much greater known form involves the use of a young, flexible stick to make a divining rod. The great herbalist Evelyn says of this,
"Lastly, for riding switches and divinatory rods for detecting and finding out minerals... by whatsoever occult virtue the forked stick, so cut and skilfully held, becomes impregnated with those invisible streams and exhalations, as by its own spontaneous bending from an horizontal posture to discover not only mines and subterraneous treasure, and springs of water, but criminals guilty of murder."