Tuesday, 24 February 2015

February catkins

There’s a lot of hazel around here. That’s Kent for you. If it’s not apples, it’s cobnuts, or at least it used to be. Food fashion and falling prices have taken their toll, and you can’t help but worry that these crops will go the same way as the hops that used to cover the county. It’s not uncommon to see fields full of grubbed out trees, lying forlornly on their sides with their roots in the air. It’s a heart-rending sight, a shocking and violent end for orchard or platt, home to bats and badgers, owls and woodpeckers. The hope is that farmers markets and a growing consumer preference for locally grown food will save the day, and certainly as far as cobnuts are concerned, there seems to be a mood of cautious optimism, no doubt encouraged by the increased revenue from the bumper crops over the past two or three years.

Grubbed out orchard in a nearby field, earlier today
Several of the gardens I have worked in recently have been on the site of cobnut platts, a few of the characteristically nobbly trees remaining, pruned into the traditional open goblet shape. But, even in areas without this agricultural heritage, you don’t have to look far before you spy a hazel tree or two, on the margins, the understory of a woodland garden, or within a hedgerow. Both the wild hazel and the cultivated cobnut tree are dripping with catkins at this time of year, the conspicuous male flowers an inch or two long, apparently out of all proportion with the tiny female flowers, red styles just about visible if you look closely (close enough to poke your eye with a twig, so care is advised). The discrepancy in size is perhaps explained by the fact that the hazel relies on the wind for pollination, a far less efficient method than those more sensible plants who co-opt insects or even birds to undertake the task, and one which requires great clouds of pollen to be released to the air in the hope that at least some fraction of it will waft across to the female flowers of the next tree. As a method of procreation it’s a particularly messy business, and surely explains why the hazel chooses to go about the task unencumbered by clothing, which would only get in the way; all this happens weeks before the trees have even given thought to putting on leaves.

Wanding a cobnut platt
My own great fondness for the hazel (Corylus avellana) is less to do with the nuts than the wood. I love the long lenticels, and the metallic sheen of the young bark, so characteristic of walking sticks made from this tree.This is a tremendously versatile plant for the gardener to have access to – the traditional practice of coppicing hazel in the woodland understory provided long, straight poles for construction of light structures, barriers and for plashing hedges, tripods and bean frames in the garden and on the allotment, while the younger wands – fabulously pliable when green, are used for pea sticks and plant supports. Wanding tends to be done when the leaves are off in winter – it’s a much simpler task to accomplish when the leaves have fallen. Of course, pruning at this time of year encourages exactly this kind of long, straight growth, but as there’s always a use for the cut wands in the garden, that’s exactly what we want. Left unpruned a hazel tree will grow to a height of 12 metres given sufficient light, reaching average age of 80 years, although coppicing greatly increases life expectancy, with some hazel stools remaining productive for several hundreds of years. It both astonishes and saddens me to think that, except in a very few cases, we have ceased to manage the woodland we have left in the UK – a source of the most fantastic, renewable material for building and for fuel – instead choosing to import from overseas products such as bamboo canes for the garden and charcoal for the barbeque, while our coppices are grubbed out and built over or abandoned to become neglected and overstood. Bonkers.

All this being said, you’d think I’d have more hazel growing in my own garden, but we weren’t fortunate enough to inherit any with the garden, and have only very young plants in the hedge we planted when we moved in. Instead, I tend to filch my hazel poles, pea sticks and cobnuts from friends and clients. After all, living in Kent, I’d be crazy to pay for these things, wouldn’t I? People do, though.

Tiny female flowers (top centre), with the long, dangling male catkins

Further information
The Kentish Cobnut Association www.kentishcobnutsassociation.org.uk