How to grow a hazel tree (Corylus avellana)

Catkins on Corylus avellana 'Contorta' (Corkscrew hazel). Getty Images

Hazel trees are native to Britain and also grow in Europe and some areas of Western Asia. In the UK, you’ll often see hazel growing in hedgerows or woodland. A hazel tree is a good choice for the garden, especially with the wide range of cultivars available, as it can be used for hedging, as a tree in a mixed border or as a shrub. It’s a valuable plant for wildlife and can provide a delicious crop of hazelnuts.

There are two main species of CorylusCorylus avellana, also known as a cobnut, and Corylus maxima, known as a filbert. Hazelnut is a common name for both of these species. Hazel trees are also often coppiced, cut down to the base, which encourages new stems to grow. These stems can be used for plant supports, fencing and wigwams among other things.

Corylus avellana has a moderate growth rate, growing around 40-60cm a year. Many hazel trees will take more than 10 years to reach their eventual height. Although it can grow to 12m tall in the wild, it’s easy to keep a hazel tree compact by pruning regularly.  For small gardens, you could also try a compact, slow growing variety, such as ‘Contorta‘, which has attractive twisted stems and only reaches 3-5m tall.

Hazel trees are deciduous and lose their leaves in winter. They’re also hardy and tolerant of most soils, although they won’t thrive in waterlogged soils. Hazel trees are wind pollinated but some bees will visit the catkins for pollen.

How to grow a hazel tree

Hazel trees thrive in moist, well drained soil in sun or partial shade. Hazel trees are hardy but low temperatures (below -10ºC) can affect the crop, so it’s best to plant your tree in a sheltered position.


Identifying a hazel tree

Hazel leaves and nuts. Getty Images
Hazel leaves and nuts. Getty Images

To identify a hazel tree in the UK, the easiest thing to look out for are the long catkins, which appear between January and March. These are usually yellow although some cultivars have reddish brown catkins. Hazel trees are monoecious, which means they have male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers are the catkins, which release pollen before falling off. Female flowers are tiny and red, and appear as wispy red petals protruding from a small bud, typically on the branch just above the catkin.

In spring or summer, you can identify a hazel by its leaves. The hazel tree leaf is soft, almost round, with jagged edges and pointed ends, while the underside of the leaf is hairy. The leaves are a fresh green colour through summer, turning yellow in the autumn before falling.

From September to October, look out for the clusters of green to yellow nuts. The nuts are enclosed by a leafy husk and grow in groups of two to four. The bark of the hazel nut tree is a shiny grey-brown colour and peels as the tree matures.


Size, Height and Spread

Corylus avellana 'Contorta' (Corkscrew hazel). Getty Images
Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Corkscrew hazel). Getty Images

A hazel tree can grow to 12m tall, with a spread of 4-8m over a period of 10-20 years. Many of its cultivars are more compact. Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’ has a height and spread of 3m x 3m.

A coppiced hazel will grow to about 3m x 3m and will have a more open bushy shape. As it’s coppiced it won’t grow into a single-stemmed small tree but will produce lots of stems.


Value to wildlife

Hazelnuts. Getty Images
Hazelnuts. Getty Images

Hazel trees are a valuable resource for wildlife, providing food for insects, birds, squirrels and dormice, as well as a habitat for butterflies. Hazel trees are also used by birds to shelter in. In woodland, hazel trees are coppiced to help create a better habitat for wildlife, mimicking the actions of beavers. The result is a multi-stemmed shrub, which provides a place for dormice to nest and also lets more light into the woodland. This allows more flowers to grow on the ground, which is good for pollinators.

  • Hazel a food plant for the caterpillars of moths including the nut tree tussock and large emerald moth
  • In woodland, coppiced hazel lets light in to the woodland floor, providing a habitat for butterflies such as fritillaries and is used as shelter by ground nesting birds such as the willow warbler and nightingale
  • The nuts are eaten by squirrels and mice, including dormice preparing for hibernation, and birds including wood pigeons and woodpeckers
  • Hazel catkins provide early pollen for bees

Where to plant a hazel tree

A hazel tree can be grown as part of a hedge, as a coppiced bush or as a tree at the back of a mixed border. It will thrive in the moist conditions found in woodland. Its roots are not invasive and its base makes a good place to plant ferns, hellebores and early spring bulbs. Coppiced hazel bushes look good planted in groups of three or five. Choose a sheltered position for your tree to protect it from low winter temperatures and harsh winds.


How to plant a hazel tree

Plant bare-root hazel trees between November and March when they’re dormant. Trees that are sold in pots can be planted year-round although avoid hot and freezing weather. Autumn is the best time to plant a tree, as it gives the tree time to establish before winter.

  • Soak bare-root and pot-grown trees before planting
  • Dig a square hole that is slightly wider than the pot if your tree is in a container and about the same depth as the pot. If bare-root, then the hole should be as deep as the roots
  • If the soil is compacted, break up the soil at the bottom of the hole with a garden fork
  • Plant with the top of the rootball, or soil mark on bare-root trees, at soil level
  • Back fill the planting hole and firm in your tree using your heel
  • Stake the tree to avoid wind rock. The stake should go in at a 45º angle. Use a tree tie to secure the stake to the tree
  • Water your tree well

How to prune a hazel tree

Removing suckers from a corkscrew hazel. Sarah Cuttle
Removing suckers from a corkscrew hazel. Sarah Cuttle

Hazel trees need only light pruning, unless you’re trying to limit their growth. In late winter or early spring, cut out any diseased, damaged or dead stems. Remove any suckers, cutting these back to the base.

If you are coppicing hazel, this should be done every three to five years to give your plant a chance to produce strong new stems. Cut branches on the outside first and work your way into the centre of the plant. Prune to 5cm above the ground.


Pests and diseases

As hazel is popular with wildlife it attracts a variety of different insects, including aphids, gall mites, caterpillars and sawfly larvae, but these are unlikely to cause problems. In rural areas, deer may damage coppiced hazel.

Advice on buying Corylus avellana

  • Corylus avellana is the Latin name for cobnut, whereas Corylus maxima is the filbert. They are both types of hazelnut. 
  • If you have a small garden, look for compact cultivars of Corylus avellana
  • Always check plants for signs of damage or disease before planting. 

Where to buy Corylus avellana

Hazel tree varieties to grow

Red catkins of Corylus avellana 'Red Majestic'. Getty Images
Red catkins of Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’. Getty Images

Corylus avellana ‘Red Majestic’ – an attractive, compact variety with an RHS Award of Garden Merit that only reaches 3m tall after 20 years. It has corkscrew stems, reddish-purple catkins and purple leaves in spring that turn green as they mature. The leaves then turn a bronze purple shade in the autumn. Height x Spread: 3m x 3m

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’the twisted stems and bright yellow catkins of ‘Contorta’ make a striking sight in late winter. This small variety is a good choice for a garden. H x S: 5m x 5m

Corylus avellana ‘Scooter’ – perfect for those with limited space, ‘Scooter’ is another contorted type of hazel but it only grows to 1.5m tall. H x S: 1m x 60cm.

Corylus avellana ‘Pearson’s Prolific’ – a good pick if you want a good crop of nuts. This compact variety is also known as ‘Nottingham Prolific’.  H x S: 3m x 2m (check)

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