Author Michael Blencowe
We've had a bit of spring sunshine and Sussex is beginning to bloom but there's been one plant that's been in flower since the start of February.
You’ll all know male hazel flowers. They’re the catkins; those droopy ‘lambs tails’ which cast their sulphur clouds of dusty love into the countryside. These clouds are made of a multitude of lonely pollen grains; each cruising on the wind hoping to find the female hazel flower. Look closely on the branches and you’ll see her desperately trying to grab a grain with her tiny bright pink tentacle tassels.
This windswept romance has occurred ever since the end of the last Ice Age when our defrosting land was a botanical blank canvas. There were rich pickings for any plant that ventured way out west and hazel was one of the first pioneers. In an empty landscape, under open skies, it established its vast nutty empire becoming our most abundant tree species.
But therein lies the problem. Hazel’s just not very good at being a tree. It doesn't grow very tall. So, when the big boys started muscling into Britain, its claim to the canopy crown ended. Giant oaks blocked the sun and banished hazel to the shadows – an understory underdog.
And there, Gollum-like, hazel waited; until we showed up. Mesolithic man, foraging around for food, acquired a taste for hazelnuts. If you’ve ever witnessed me poking around with a spoon in the bottom of a Nutella jar it’s clear that this love of hazelnuts, and our table manners, have changed little in the last 10,000 years. Hazelnuts were a vital protein source for our ancestors and each nut is individually packaged in a little container for easy storage.
But hazel took care of us in other ways too. It has a magical power of regeneration. Whatever doesn’t kill it just makes it stronger. Hack down a hazel and, like the Hydra, it’ll bounce back mob-handed, sending up an army of new shoots. Cutting hazel and allowing it to regrow (the art of coppicing) gave us a crop of strong, flexible poles. Coppiced poles have a multitude of uses; firewood, fences, fishing rods, shepherd’s crooks, walking sticks , water diviners and magic wands. Hazel poles were the wattle in the ‘wattle and daub’ that held together our early homes. Hazel helped us build Britain.
And it built a Britain full of burly men with axes who marched into the wild woods and cut down those big oaks. And as our woodlands were cleared hazel rose again and regained its place in our developing countryside. Perhaps we were part of its comeback plan all along?