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In the gales that have torn through the country over the last couple of months it is easy to see why trees drop their leaves.
They time their growth and fall with the weather. Imagine thousands of tiny green sails catching those winds – there wouldn’t be many woods left standing. But while most deciduous trees keep themselves battened down until spring the hazel is blooming.
Its catkins begin to appear in December and January. Decorating woodlands through the late winter. Tiny green-gold flowers, a few millimetres wide and peaked like the beaks of baby birds, dangle in long rows from otherwise bare branches. As the days slowly lengthen the catkins ripen into opulent lemony curls. They seem delicate, like a light pale tinsel that could fall easily off their twigs.
While polytunnels are being shredded, paint is stripped off picnic tables, and branches thick and thin are being scattered to the ground, it seems unlikely that anything as slight as a catkin could remain fixed in place. However, their appearance is deceptive; they are built for the wind. Try as it might to pull the soft flowers from the woody stem, the tails simply dance along with the wind and it cannot get a grip.
While most blossoms rely on insects to carry pollen between them, hazel trees depend on the movement of the air. Each tree has both male and female flowers but cannot pollinate itself. The long concertinas are the male flowers, each giving up puffs of pollen that will gust across to its neighbour. Waiting there, tucked in close to their branch, are the miniscule red fronds of the female flowers. They grow on tiny green buds that, if fertilised, will become hazelnuts.
I like the hazel’s relationship with the winter weather. Instead of hiding from it or resisting it they live on it.
In her now-famous book, The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd observes that the people of the Cairngorms take on characteristics of the landscape in which they live. I wonder about the attitude of people who live in Scotland towards the weather and how it might echo a little of the hazel’s approach, where the ability to withstand winter storms is a behaviour learned through necessity.
Hazel trees were apparently one of the first species to colonise this landscape after the last ice age and so humans and hazel have been sharing this particular corner of the world for several thousand years. Its pliable wood would have sheltered us, carried us as boat frames, tipped with flint and thrown for hunting and, of course, its nuts would have been a welcome and easily stored protein.
Every year I search for the little red flowers with the potential for an autumn harvest; I’ll watch them swell over the summer, waiting for the moment they’re ripe, but – like every year – the deer will probably beat me to it. It’s all in the timing.
www.kirsteenbellblog.wordpress.com – @KirsteenBell