Detail of hazel tree in The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937 (37.80.5)
The common hazel, or Corylus avellana, is an understory tree native to Europe and western Asia and is widely distributed from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. The English name for the tree is derived from the Anglos-Saxon word haesel. The hazel appears in two critical medieval horticultural sources, the Carolingian Capitulare de Villis and in the St. Gall Plan, along with references in folklore, literature, and both Pagan and Christian traditions. The hazel is still cultivated today for its nuts, which are harvested after they have fallen from the tree in autumn. Hazelnuts are commercially grown in Oregon and Washington, although Turkey exports 75% of the world’s supply.
Wattle hurdles used as borders and plant supports in the Bonnefont Cloister herb garden. Although our wattle is made from willow, hazel has also been used for the same purposes since the Neolithic.
Hazel trees do not have a single trunk. A number of shoots or trunks branch at or just above ground level, leading some to refer to the hazel as a bush rather than a tree. It has a dense, spreading habit, and is short-lived (fifty to seventy years), but will live much longer if coppiced (see “Coppicing and Pollarding,” March 4, 2011). The young shoots can be put to a multitude of both magical and practical uses. Like willow, it is pliant and easily split or bent, woven into wattle hurdles, baskets, or planted as hedgerows.
Hazelnuts are edible raw or roasted, and can be ground into paste or mixed with flour. The nuts and oil have long been used in baking and confectionery, and the nuts and leaves are traditional animal fodder. They are a good source of protein, rich in unsaturated fat, plentiful, and an easily stored foodstuff. Della Hooke notes medicinal uses that are Anglo-Saxon in origin: a specific lichen which grew on hazel was used as a wound salve, and a fine meal of hazel or alder was infused into ale as an emetic. Hazel is included in a long list of ingredients, along with “grease and old butter,” to produce what sounds like a rather revolting headache salve. Hazelnuts could either be carried or eaten to alleviate rheumatism.
Tree symbolism is ancient and endlessly complex, incorporating aspects of life, death, and rebirth; trees that are long lived serve as a metaphor for longevity, deciduous trees reflect the cycle of life, death, and hope of rebirth, while evergreens stand for eternal life. This holds true in both Pagan and Christian traditions (see, for example, “The Hallowed Yew,” December 11, 2009). Hazel, in particular, was a favorite wood for making walking sticks and staffs—for Druid rituals or later Christian pilgrims. Norse, Celtic, and Roman mythology all identified the hazel as the Tree of Knowledge, and its nuts symbolize wisdom. The hazel was a magical tree in Britain and most of Europe, both protected from and powerful against supernatural enchantment. Along with hawthorn and rowan, hazel branches were collected and hung over doorways on May Day as apotropaic devices and to celebrate spring. In Irish lore hazel protects against snakes, spirits, evil, and abduction by fairies, although it is also said to house wise fairies. Hazel was reputed to have prophetic power, and divining rods made from it were used not only for water dowsing, but also to locate minerals, treasure, or even criminals.
In English folklore, the hazel is guarded by a malevolent boggart or elf, variously known as Hind Etin, Melsh Dick, or Churn-milk Peg. Geoffrey Grigson illustrates this tradition with an undated Scottish ballad about May Margret, who has hardly begun to gather hazelnuts when Hind Etin grabs her by her blond hair and ties her to a tree:
She had na pu’d a nut, a nut,
A nut but barely ane,
Till up started the Hynde Etin,
Says, “Lady, let thae alane!”
Hind Etin eventually releases and marries the lucky May Margret. Other versions of the story accuse her of picking a rose, or breaking a branch of an entirely different tree.
The hazel appears in four of the Unicorn Tapestries. In The Unicorn is Killed and Brought Back to the Castle, a hazel in both fruit and flower is prominently depicted in the lower left corner. Perched on a branch, a red squirrel clutches a nut in his paw. He or she may not be quite as bad as an elf, but Norse and Germanic myth claims that squirrels were messengers between spirits of the underworld who lived at the base of trees and the gods above.
Additional appearances of the hazelnut—both symbolic and actual—will be discussed in the next post.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Hooke, Della. Trees in Anglo-Saxon England. Literature, Lore and Landscape, Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2010.
Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.
Williamson, John. The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn: the Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries, New York: Harper & Row, 1986.