There’s something fun about eating wild hazelnuts. Sure, the edible part of the nut is a little small, but they’re a blast to snack on, while reminiscing on time spent foraging in nature.
Where can you find wild hazelnuts? Wild hazelnuts, consisting of beaked hazelnuts and American hazelnuts, are widespread throughout the United States. Beaked hazelnuts are mostly across the Northern US and parts of California, while American hazelnuts are fairly widespread throughout the Eastern US. Both thrive in disturbed areas.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to start identifying areas around you that could feature wild hazelnuts.
The Most Common Types of Wild Hazelnuts
There are two different types of wild hazelnuts that we’ll cover in this post: beaked hazelnuts and American hazelnuts. I won’t get directly into identification of each species, as I think that’s best left up to guidebooks and experienced mentors.
American hazelnuts are fairly widespread throughout the Eastern United States. Here’s what you can expect the immature nuts to look like:
The bushes of an American hazelnut are not as tall as the beaked hazelnut, and they take on a more “bushy” appearance.
Beaked hazelnuts are also widespread throughout North America, occupying the northern part of the United States and parts of the west coast. Here’s what an immature nut for a beaked hazelnut looks like:
Beaked hazelnuts are noticeably taller than American hazelnuts, and they tend to cluster in tight groups where the main stems are visible for about the bottom two thirds of the shrub.
Common Habitats for Wild Hazelnuts
Both types of wild hazelnuts prefer disturbed areas, meaning that they are frequently found in areas like roadsides, forest edges, openings, and other similar locations.
While they can exist in shadier locations, you’ll want to seek out areas with decent access to sunlight, as that helps a lot with nut production. Trails running through mature forests can have wild hazelnuts, but you’d want to look on the side with the better light access.
Using USDA Reports to Narrow Our Options
This is where this post gets a little technical. Rather than leaving you with a description of potential habitats and then offering a hearty “Good luck!”, we’re going to try to leverage a USDA application to find land with soil that might be suitable for wild hazelnuts.
It’s worth noting that this entire process is based upon a report that doesn’t appear to be universally available across the continental United States. Unfortunately, not everyone will have access to this information.
For those that do have access to data from this report, understand that this can be an incredibly useful tool for a forager, in a million different ways. Sure, maybe this post will be specifically focused on finding areas with a higher likelihood of having wild hazelnuts present, but that’s not where this reports utility has to end. From blackberries to blueberries to cranberries and more, a wide variety of edible plants show up in these reports.
Brief Introduction to This Process
This process is based around a tool called the Web Soil Survey that is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture. The goal of this browser application is two-fold:
- Allow users to access a soil map of the United States that indicates which soil types are present where.
- Facilitate the easy access of information about the soil types found in a certain area. This includes both scientific properties and information on the suitability of that soil type for different real-world scenarios.
This all may be a little confusing, and that’s OK. In this post we’re going to exclusively focus on the steps you need to take to generate the report we need. If you happen to be interested in learning more about this application and would like to explore it in greater depth, feel free to check out this post that covers everything you could need to get started.
Finding Soil Types That are More Likely to Have Wild Hazelnuts
Alright, let’s get to it: here’s the link to open up a new session of Web Soil Survey. This should be approximately what your screen looks like once you’re loaded:
The first thing you’ll want to do is zoom into the local area that you’re interested in learning about. By default the ‘zoom in’ tool is selected when you open the application, so you have to zoom to your area with one of two methods:
- Pressing single-clicks until the map is zoomed in on your area
- Clicking and dragging to form a box over the area you want to zoom to, and then the screen should zoom to the highlighted area
You’re probably noticing at this point that the navigation is a bit…dated. Adjusting the zoom and moving the map is a much more manual process than we might be accustomed to in this modern age, but its controlled by a relatively simple toolbar. The first three buttons on the toolbar what you’ll need to navigate, and they are the following:
- Zoom in
- Zoom out
- Pan the screen (moving the map manually)
Again, this isn’t a great interface, but I think you’ll get the hang of it relatively quickly.
One quick note on the area that you’ll zoom into: you’ll want to cover a relatively large area, but there are limits. The tool only allows a selection of 100,000 acres or less, but you’ll be able to keep to that limit pretty easily. For context, a 10-mile square, which is therefore 100 square miles, would only be 64,000 acres.
Once you’ve zoomed in on a location that you’re interested in learning about, you’re next going to have to select an ‘Area of Interest’ with the menu. To select this we’ll need to use the button in the toolbar with the red box, which is located here:
After turning this feature on, we’ll then drag a box over the area that we want soil information on, like so:
Once you release the mouse, you should be presented with a box that has diagonal lines running through it in the area you selected. There are two possible situations that might give you an error.
First, you may have selected an area that exceeded the size limit of 100,000 acres. If that is the case, all you’ll have to do is draw a new AOI.
Another possibility is that you selected an area that draws from more than one soil survey. You’re still allowed to proceed if this is the case, but it will make the reporting more laborious to work through. If this is the case, I’d recommend that you redraw your AOI if you’re using this application for the first time.
If your screen looks something like this then you’re ready to move onto the next step:
What we want to do next is to scroll up to the top of the page, and then look for the third tab which is called the ‘Soil Data Explorer’ and looks like like this:
Clicking this tab will generate a soil map on the screen, and then update the menu on the left with the appropriate features. Once you click through you should notice a second set of tabs; this time we want to click on the ‘Soil Reports’ tab, which is located here:
This will bring us to the page that has the report that we’re looking to run. We’ll want to look at the menu on the left, which should look something like this:
We’re interested in the ‘Vegetative Productivity’ group of reports, and you can click anywhere on that section to expand the reports. Once expanded, we’re looking for the ‘Rangeland and Forest Vegetation Classification, Productivity, and Plant Composition’ report, which is listed here:
Click anywhere on that report title to expand the screen, and then you’ll want to click the ‘View Soil Report’ button, which is found here:
Once you run the report, you may notice that there is a report that shows up underneath the map. Assuming you have data in the report, that area should look something like this:
I’d like to draw your attention to the column name that I’ve highlighted in the screenshot above. This is the column that we’ll be most interested in, as it contains the list of plants associated with that specific soil type.
Before we start interpreting the results, I’d like you to quickly do a search on your screen for the ‘hazelnut’ term. This will go through the report results and check whether hazelnuts are mentioned at any point.
It’s possible that you have report results but hazelnuts are mentioned nowhere. This is totally fine, and it turns out that the area I randomly selected for demonstration purposes doesn’t mention hazelnuts at all. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no hazelnuts in this area, it’s just that they’re less likely to be found in these types of soils.
After a few tries I eventually found an AOI that included hazelnuts in the results, as this is what I found:
One quick navigational note before we start discussing how to use these results. If your selected Area of Interest didn’t include hazelnuts and you’re looking to try a different area, you’ll first have to go back to select another AOI by clicking the ‘Area of Interest (AOI)’ tab at the top of the screen. Then you’ll select a new AOI and then navigate back to the ‘Soil Data Explorer’ tab to run the report again. One final note: you’ll need to click the ‘View Soil Report’ button to generate a report for the new AOI, as the results shown are still for the old AOI.
Making Sense of the Report Results
Alright, so we found a report that mentions some kind of wild hazelnut in it. What exactly does that mean for us? Here’s where it might help to briefly explain the structure of the information in this report.
Take, for instance, the report results that I highlighted above. There are two parts of this report that are most important to understand:
The first thing to understand is that the different types of soil on the map are labeled with the map unit symbol, which in this case is the value of ‘MuB’ that the arrow is pointing at. This means that the soil type is MuB. Long story short, soil types are comprised of different soil series, and ‘Mudlake’ is an example of a soil series.
In a (hazel)nut shell, here’s what the report is telling us: beaked hazelnuts are commonly associated with the ‘Mudlake’ soil series, which is a major component of the ‘MuB’ soil type. In English: if we want to find wild hazelnuts, we should be interested any parts of the map that are labeled as the ‘MuB’ soil type.
Hopefully this is all making sense, but I understand if it’s a lot to take in. Taking your time to work slowly through this and experiment with the tool will make it feel much more natural in no time.
Action Steps: How to Actually Use This Approach in the Field
I’m sure this seems cool and all, but the goal here isn’t to have you spend a bunch of time on your computer while you think about nature. We want you to actually get out into nature and on the hunt for delicious hazelnuts. We’re just looking to use technology to make that journey a little easier.
Find a Large Enough Area on Your Soil Map That Features the Desired Soil Series
Going back to the example I was discussing earlier, we now have to take the report results and find the specific soil types that indicate there’s a likely presence of hazelnuts.
In the Area of Interest I was looking at, there are two different soil types that mentioned ‘beaked hazelnuts’ in the results: MuB and PhB. My job is now to scroll back up to the map and search for any instances of these two soil types. Just for reference, here’s what my soil map looks like for my AOI:
It’s likely difficult to see unless you open the above image in a new tab, but I’m able to pretty quickly spot several different instances of the ‘MuB’ soil type.
After checking a few different areas, the largest section of the ‘MuB’ soil type that I could find is the following:
There are a few main reasons why I was most interested in this spot. First, it was likely the largest piece I could find that was MuB. Second, I see that this piece happens to have a road running through it. If you remember what we discussed earlier, hazelnuts are usually more prevalent along disturbed areas like roadsides.
Confirm If You Have Public Access to The Land
This is a really important point: just because we find a possible spot on the map, does not mean that we have access to it or the right to forage there (even if it is public land).
You likely already know this, but as foragers it’s our responsibility to ensure that we are always following the rules of the organizations that managed of the land. So our job here is to find a spot that we’re going to check out, and then checking if we have access.
What you’ll need to do is to click the button in the toolbar that is a blue bubble with an ‘i’ in it:
This is the Information tool, and we can use it to pull the GPS coordinates of a specific location on the map. Once you’ve toggled on the tool, you can click anywhere on the map to produce an information window. This window doesn’t show up in the map, but instead shows up as a new report directly below the map, like the following:
Now that we have the coordinates, we can use them to determine who owns this land. I can confirm that this area is public land, as this bit of land is part of the Nicolet National Forest.
Look for all Trails and Roads Running Through Your Targeted Area
As hazelnuts generally prefer areas that are disturbed, our best bet is to take our target area and look for any trails or roads that cut through it.
It’s worth noting that you’re likely best off picking a location where you can park your car, with the assumption that you’ll park there and go on foot the rest of the way.
Here comes the fun part! Now that we’ve done the technical part, our job is to get out in the woods and see if we can find some hazelnuts.
Things to Keep in Mind While Looking for Wild Hazelnuts
Now that we’ve covered the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of locating wild hazelnuts, let’s take a minute to go over a few key points that any forager should
Learn to Identify the ‘Habit’ of the Bush
This is generally true when foraging for any type of plant, but one of the best things you can do is familiarize yourself with the ‘habit’ of the plant. Generally speaking, this refers to the structure that the plant takes on based on the shape and formation of the branches and leaves.
For example, the beaked hazelnut often has a bush structure that has a sort of open understory on the bottom two-thirds of the plant while the majority of the leaves are in the top third. This means that you can look for an understory that has a lot of main stems that are clustered together and bowing slightly outwards.
On the other hand, the American hazelnut is a shorter bush and is densely leafed throughout the majority of the plant. This may be a little hard to explain in words, but once you get used to seeing each plant you’ll have this ‘habit’ imparted on your brain as a sort of visual structure to be subconsciously scanning the woods for.
As always, your best bet is to heavily rely on your guide books (yes, you’ll use ideally use more than one source) to first positively identify the plant. Once you’ve identified them, your job is to work on building up that instinctual visual memory of how that plant looks.
Easiest to Find the Immature Nuts First
Early to mid-summer will likely be the best time for most people to try to identify wild hazelnuts for the first time. This is because it will force you to look for bushes that have already started producing nuts.
This approach also reduces how much potential time you might have to wait in between positive identification and harvesting. With that being said, any time is better than never, so don’t feel like you need to wait another year just because the timing wasn’t perfect.
Timing is Crucial: Squirrels Won’t Wait for You
It’s hard to stress this enough: when the wild hazelnuts ripen, it will likely be only a matter of days before squirrels and other animals utterly decimate the ripe hazelnuts.
Even being a few days late can be the difference between an awesome harvest and getting skunked, so harvesting wild hazelnuts is often difficult to time unless you live nearby your source.
Just for the record: do try to leave some hazelnuts for the squirrels. They have plenty to eat in the wild, but it’s kind to leave them some, especially given how much they seem to appreciate them.
Hopefully you enjoyed this piece and got a few valuable tips that you can apply to your search for the wild hazelnut. I’ve always enjoyed searching around the woods for all sorts of different kinds of wild edibles, and wild hazelnuts are no exception.
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