Species Matter; Varieties Matter

You say “tomayto,” I say “tomahto.” You say “filbert,” I say “hazelnut.” (“Filbert” is from St. Philibert, to whom August 22nd, is dedicated and which is the day of first ripening of hazelnuts in England.) Although hazelnuts originally referred to native American filberts, hazelnut and filbert are now equivalent.

It’s been over twenty years since I planted my first hazelnuts. Fortunately, hazels bear quickly, often within 3 or 4 years. Unfortunately, a disease called eastern filbert blight can decimate the trees, and not begin to do so for about a decade. Our native hazels (Corylus americana), having evolved with the blight, are resistant. Not so for European hazels, which are the hazelnuts of commerce.Native hazel

My first planting was of our native hazel, which I planted for beauty and for nuts. It did turn out to be an attractive, suckering shrub that lit up fall with its boldly colored leaves. The nuts themselves were less notable: small and not very good tasting.

Next I planted a few old varieties of hybrid hazels, Graham, Gellatly, and Halls Giant, followed, a few years later by Tonda di Giffoni, Lewis, and Clark. All were billed as blight resistant and did quite well. In the 1960s eastern filbert blight made its way to the Pacific Northwest, the hotbed of commercial hazelnut production in the U.S. (providing 99 percent of domestic hazelnuts), which prompted breeding of resistant varieties. Lewis and Clark are two such varieties. Two more such varieties, Santiam and Yamhill, were added to my collection 11 years ago.MY hazel plantings

Right on schedule after about ten years, black pustules of blight began to show up on branches, which start to die, then finish. But the varieties I planted were blight resistant, you say. Resistance is a matter of degree (“immune” means no disease), and the varieties I planted evidently were not sufficiently resistant. 

Blight pustules on stems

This doesn’t at all reflect poorly on breeders of these not-quite-resistant-enough hybrids. The blight fungus is capricious, changing with location and, perhaps, over time. I dug up and out all the nonproductive, diseased plants.

But I like filberts. Enter a few breeders breeding filberts right here in the northeast. One is Dr. Tom Molnar of Rutgers University, from whom I got a few selections (with nonluscious, early selection names like CR X R03P26 and CR X R11P07), which I planted back in 2014. And Jeff Zarnowski, of Z’s Nutty Ridge Nursery. And others. So now I grow Geneva (aka Gene, from Grimo Nut Nursery), Truxton, Dorris (another selection from Oregon), Raritan (a more advanced selection from Rutgers), as well as my original Rutgers plants.

I’m ready to cull again any varieties that catch blight or whose nuts are too small. For wherever plants are culled, I have potted plants of Monmouth, Hunterdon, and Somerset — all advanced Rutgers selections — waiting in the wings. 

Streamlining Processing (On a Very Small Scale)

As with fruits in general, this year was also the best ever for nuts that I grow. Even the English walnuts (Juglans regia) bore a crop this year, their first substantial crop, all from 6 walnuts I planted back in 2006. I didn’t have high hopes for walnuts because they are susceptible to anthracnose disease, late frosts, and squirrels, which could conveniently harvest the nuts from the overhead squirrel highway along the road.

And the filberts — oodles of them. Mostly, we just shell and eat them. That’s fine. But for cooking with them or concocting a delicacy such as, say, fig-hazelnut jam, shelling nuts one at a time is too slow.Basket of filberts

A quick web search turned up a couple of very elegant, home made shellers that work reasonably well. Luckily, before I delved too deeply in how I was going to fabricate one of these out of metal, I did a web search and found one available for about $30.

(These kitchen counter hazelnut sheller are manufactured in Turkey, which grows 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts. Want another fun fact? Twenty-five percent of the world’s production goes into making Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, both hazelnut and chocolate confections made by the Luxemburger company Ferraro.)Turkish nut sheller

One problem with the sheller is that it needs adjustment for nut size, so it is recommended to do some sorting into size ranges before running nuts through the sheller. This I could make myself, easily. Basically, it is an open wooden box whose bottom has 3/8 inch square, wooden dowels spaced 5/8 inch apart, which is pretty much the size of my largest hazelnuts in the shell. The corners of the box are joined by hinges so that the sides can be moved to deform the shape. As the box deforms increasingly to a parallelogram, the distance between the dowels decreases. A pegged slat from one side of the box to n adjacent side holds the box to the desired shape and dowel spacing.

So I just adjust the box to the smallest dowel spacing needed, about 3/8 inch apart, dump on a bunch of nuts, and shake. Then I move the spacing up to about 1/2 inch, then shake again. And finally, move spacing to 5/8 inch, and . . .  well, you know.

Hazelnut size selector

I could be on my way to hazelnut butter, chopped hazelnuts sprinkled on everything, that fig-hazelnut jam, perhaps even home made Nutella. No rush. Once sufficiently dried (to 6 percent moisture, which takes a couple of weeks), hazelnuts store well in their shells for over year. Shelled and refrigerated, they keep for for about six months

Hazels, Filberts, Cobnuts; Good by any Name

Nuts are Good

Let’s talk about nuts. No, not about nutty politics, but about real nuts such as fall from trees and shrubs. (Peanuts are borne on a small, annual plant, but despite their name, are legumes, not true nuts.) Nuts are an overlooked food. For all you protein people, nuts are high in protein, and, for all you heart-healthy people, they’re high in the good kinds of fatty acids. I eat them because, unadulterated, they’re good-tasting and generally good for you.

Ripe filbert nuts

Ripe filbert nuts

Nuts are not difficult to grow, and can make attractive dual-purpose plants as both edibles and as ornamentals.

Black walnuts are especially easy. Squirrels do the planting for me; my job is to get rid of excess trees, of which there are plenty sprouting all over the place. The next job with walnuts, after gathering them up, is getting at the nutmeat. Well worth the effort, in my opinion, but that’s a story for another time.

Filbert in Variety

Filberts are easy to grow and easy to shell. Because of a disease known as eastern filbert blight, the trick in growing them here in the Northeast is selecting an appropriate variety. (“Hazelnut” is another name for filberts, as is, In Britain, “cobnut.“) Filbert blight is an indigenous disease east of the Rocky Mountains. First symptoms are elliptical black stromata along stems.

Pustules of filbert blight

Pustules of filbert blight

The disease kills individual branches, even whole plants. I first planted filberts many years ago and was told it could take 10 years for the disease to show up; disappointingly, that was true.

Susceptibility to filbert blight varies. Our native American filbert (Coryllus americana) evolved with the disease so is resistant. Unfortunately, it generally bears nuts that are very small and not very tasty. European filberts (C. avellana), the filberts of commerce, bear large, tasty nuts, but are susceptible to filbert blight. 

Decades of breeding at universities and by individual nut enthusiasts sought the holy grail: Filbert plants that bear large, tasty nuts and that fend off filbert blight. Filbert blight’s inroads into the Pacific northwest, where filberts are grown commercially spurred development of a number of blight resistant varieties at Oregon State University (OSU). I’ve tried a number of them, including Jefferson, Lewis, Clark, Santiam, Yamhill, Dorris, and Theta. Problem is that the filbert blight fungus has a nasty habit of appearing in more than one strain so that a variety resistant in one place can be susceptible elsewhere. All those OSU varieties, with the exception of Dorris and Yamhill succumbed to blight here.

Over the years, I’ve also planted other varieties. Gellatly, Halls Giant, and Tonda di Giffoni were promising, and bore large, tasty nuts for a few years before succumbing to blight. Almost ripe filbertsFive years ago, I had the opportunity to test some of the varieties from Dr. Tom Molnar’s filbert breeding program at Rutgers University; these plants are now old enough to bear. Being test plants, they have unappetizing names like CR x R11P07 and CR x RO3P26. Mmmm. I’m sure they mean something to Tom.

All of which is to say that I have a good reservoir of blight fungus floating around here as well as a number of varieties to evaluate for yield, nut quality (which, at this point, is mostly about size), and resistance to filbert blight. Drum roll . . . The winners, so far, are CR x R11P10, CR x RO3P26, CR x R06P56, Yamhill, and Graham. None of the “CR” varieties show any blight and all have good nut size. The heaviest yield is from  CR x RO3P26. 

Filbert nuts in summerYamhill always has some blight but still manages to bear nuts, small to medium-sized ones.

The last one named, Graham, is from my original planting of 20 years ago. Its suckering growth habit evokes its American filbert parentage. (European filberts hardly spread by suckers, growing instead as large bushes or medium-sized trees.) Graham always has a number of blighted branches yet always bears good crops of large, tasty nuts.

Also in the pipeline are MacDonald (from OSU), Truxton, and Geneva (also known as Gene, and from and Filberts typically bear in their third or fourth year so I won’t be waiting long before seeing if any of these varieties are keepers.

Enter: Squirrels

Filberts are delicious, and growing and cracking them is easy; the fly in the ointment is squirrels. They will strip a bush clean. Besides, or in addition to, the usual methods for thwarting squirrels — dogs, cats, guns, and traps — are other options.

Sufficiently isolated plants, if grown as single-trunked trees and trained so that no branches droop or originate lower than 6 to 8 ft. from ground level, can be protected. Either a 2 ft. cylinder or an inverted cone of sheet metal wrapped around the trunk 6 to 8 feet above ground level does the trick.

Hot pepper spray?

Harvesting the almost-ripe nuts before squirrels get to them?

I’ve found that squirrels avoid running in high grass, probably because it slows them down, and they need all the speed they can get with my dogs present. Then again, maybe they’re just hidden from me in the high grass. Still, thus far squirrels have avoided my filberts in my once-a-year mowed meadow.Filbert plants in a row