Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, this week the search for a Wednesday Weed sent me in a completely different direction from my usual route. On a rainy, blustery day, I headed off towards our local primary school, to see if the playing fields there had anything growing that I had not already covered. In vain I peered through the fence at the turf, until my eyes refocused and I realised that I’d been looking at my subject all along. For what is more surprising on a January day than a plant that is already in full flower, ready to reproduce when everything else is still in bed?
The male Hazel catkin has the delightful colour of a sherbet-lemon. With every damp gust, invisible clouds of pollen are released. With any luck, they will be captured on by the red female flowers who wait with open arms, a little like sea anemones.
It is these female flowers that will eventually turn into hazelnuts. They will promptly be nibbled off by squirrels or, if we are extremely lucky, by dormice. Kentish Cobnuts, with their creamy white interiors and little hats of pale green, are a domesticated variety of the hazelnut, but the wild variety is perfectly good to eat, and was, indeed, one of the staple foods of prehistoric peoples. Hazel has grown in the UK for at least the last 6000 years, and only birch was quicker to colonise the country after the last Ice Age. The spread of the plant throughout Europe has been attributed to its being carried from place to place by humans. After all, nuts are a concentrated, portable form of protein and carbohydrate. What better food if you’re embarking on a (very) long walk?
The Hazel growing beside the school playing fields has turned itself into a small tree, but historically it is much coppiced, the stems being used for a wide variety of purposes. They are extremely flexible, and can be turned back upon themselves or knotted. They were woven together to form both hurdles and fences, and were also used as the framework for wattle and daub walls. They are still used in thatching, to hold the thatch down, because the hazel stems can be bent through 180 degrees. A more modern use is in the creation of sound screens alongside motorways.A plant which has lived alongside us in these islands since the very beginning, Hazel has many associations with Druid and Celtic beliefs. Its stems have been used for water divination, and for the making of shepherds’ crooks and pilgrims’ staffs. A Hazel tree was believed to be the home of Bile Ratha, the poetic fairy of Irish folklore, and it was believed that eating hazelnuts would bestow wisdom. On Dartmoor, Hazel was said to be the cure for snake and dog bites. And, to prevent toothache, you simply have to carry a double-hazelnut in your pocket at all times.
The catkins are shivering in the wintry blast, and so am I. Parents are tearing past me in their cars, hurrying to pick their children up from the school gate and giving me a decidedly funny look as I stand in the rain, peering through the fence with my camera. I wonder if any of the children will get the chance to admire the catkins, the first sign that the long dark is finally loosening its grip. I hope that someone will take the time to show the little ones the ‘lambs tails’, and explain to them about this plant. After all, we have been living together, side by side, for six thousand years.