Hazelnuts have a long history associated with the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Although there is a species of hazelnut native to the Pacific Northwest (C. cornuta var. californica), cultivated hazelnuts were introduced to the United States from Europe many years ago, and their history goes back much further than that.
Prehistoric Humans Loved Hazelnuts
Hazelnuts have been consumed by humans since prehistoric times. Evidence of the cultivation of hazelnuts exists in excavations sites in China that date back over 5,000 years ago. An ancient manuscript also listed hazelnuts as one of China’s five sacred foods. Archaeologists have found large quantities of hazelnut shells in Mesolithic and Neolithic sites in what is now Sweden, Denmark, and Germany. The Mesolithic era, or Middle Stone Age, dates back around 10,000 years ago until the Neolithic period, which started 7,000 years ago. Hazelnuts were a large part of the prehistoric hunter and gatherer’s diet, and the nuts probably provided them with enough nutrition to sustain them between hunting seasons.
Mystical Powers and Healing Properties
Throughout history, it was believed that hazel trees and their nuts possessed mystical powers and healing properties. Divining rods were made out of Y-shaped hazel tree branches to locate underground springs, buried treasure, and minerals and ores. Ancients Romans would light hazel torches during wedding nights as a sign of fertility and to ensure a long and happy marriage.
Hazelnuts were used in remedies for various illnesses and ailments. Greek physicians would recommend crushed hazelnuts to cure coughs and the common cold. Ground hazelnuts mixed with bear grease was apparently a cure for baldness. In Greek mythology, Mercury, the son of Jupiter, received a winged wand made of hazel wood which would help the wielder express their thoughts through words. The hazel rod entwined with two serpents became a symbol of communication.
Hazelnuts Spread Across the World
The hazel tree is very sturdy and can flourish in drought-susceptible to cold environments. It can be grown in a wide range of USDA plant hardiness zones, from four through eight. It was one of the first shrub-like trees to spread north after the last glacial period in Europe ended 7,000 years ago. Hazelnut trees have long dominated the British Isles and parts of Scandinavia.
Hazelnuts in the Pacific Northwest
Hazel trees were introduced to the United States by European immigrants. The first hazelnut tree in the Pacific Northwest was planted in 1858 by Sam Strickland, a retired English sailor in Scottsburg, Oregon. Today, Oregon hazelnuts grown in the Willamette Valley make up 99 percent of hazelnuts produced in the United States. The remaining 1 percent is produced in Washington. In 1989, the hazelnut (commonly called the filbert by Oregonians) became the official state nut of Oregon.