Two Hazels

Tales From Across the Pond

by Carol Speth*

There is no pond in Maxwell Arboretum, but when my grandpa used to talk about the Old Country (in his case, Germany) he called it Across the Pond.

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|   Hazel  |  Hawthorn  |   Holly

Tales From Across the Pond: Hazel

People rushing down the path to see the blooming crabapples, rhododendrons and azaleas in Maxwell Arboretum could easily miss two small trees whose blooms were barely noticeable several weeks earlier. The photos hardly do justice to the leaves, which are shiny and yet very soft. These are the European Filbert, also called the Hazel Tree, which looks like a woody shrub, and the Japanese Witch Hazel on the other side of the path. There is an American Witch Hazel south of the Loop.

The Hazel (corylus) was one of the sacred trees of the Celtic peoples, who lived all across Europe from the Danube west to Britain and Ireland, northern Spain, northern Italy, right down to the northern border of Greece. They were courageous fighters with a high level of technological development, but their tribes could not stay politically united long enough for such a long war of attrition. They were gradually pushed westward to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, first by the Romans and then the Germanic peoples.European Filbert

When you drink hazelnut coffee or eat hazelnut chocolate or hazelnut cream cheese on your bagel, do you feel any wiser? In Celtic folklore, hazelnuts were associated with wisdom. In one story, nine hazel trees grew around a sacred pond, dropping nuts into the pond to be eaten by salmon. The spots on the salmon were said to indicate how many nuts they had eaten. In another story, specific to Ireland, all the wisdom went to one particular salmon. Fionn MacCumhail (spelled several different ways and pronounced something like Finn McCool), who was serving as an apprentice, was told by his Master to cook that salmon but not eat any so the Master could eat it and absorb all the wisdom. But hot juice from the fish splashed on the boy's thumb and he put it in his mouth instinctively, so the wisdom went to the boy instead! Fionn had quite a career, too much to tell here. You can make your own decision as to whether his later life showed exceptional wisdom. (

Our English word for the hazel comes from the Anglo-Saxon, haesel—for cap or hat, and  knut—for nut. The Trees for Life website mentioned above says the cap refers to the cap of leaves above the nut and that another name for the nuts, filberts—comes from St. Philibert's Feast Day on August 20, which is when the hazelnuts start to ripen. English school children used to get a holiday on September 14 to go nutting.—I have read other versions of the part about St. Philibert, who lived in Brittany (now part of France), but it gets too confusing. Hazels need another tree to be fertilized, so the one in Maxwell Arboretum does not bear any nuts (at least I have not been able to see any developing on the tree or shells on the ground).

In the Scottish Highlands, where it is an important part of the ecosystem, the hazel sometimes grows a single trunk with a canopy, but it is just as likely to look like a woody shrub with many stems. The hazelnut growers of Oregon like to develop a single trunk because it is easier to use mechanical pickers. Other people encourage the development of many stems by cutting the central trunk. This is an ancient form of wood farming called coppicing. It looks like this happened to the one in Maxwell Arboretum. The wood was especially valued for walking staffs, both for their strength and their magical powers! They could be flexible enough to be bent for shepherds' crooks as they were growing.

There are hazel trees native to North America and they are more hardy and resistant to blight than the European. Most of the hazelnuts grown in the U.S. come from Oregon. But if you sit on the deck at the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City, perhaps enjoying a piece of apple pie, and look towards Arbor Lodge, you will see hazel trees being grown to investigate their potential as a sustainable cash crop in Nebraska.

In past centuries, hazel rods or forked sticks were valued for divining rods.—In the old country, they were used to find precious metals. In our part of the world, they were used to find precious water. The process of using sticks or rods to find things was also called dowsing—or witching for water.—My mother's Uncle Herman's brother had the gift of being able to find water in this way. This was handy, because the two brothers were well-diggers. Back in the 1990's, I rode an airport shuttle from El Paso to Las Cruces, New Mexico, with several people on their way to a national dowsing convention! So people still practice this trade, especially in drier regions.


Now I'm coming to the witchy part. When European settlers came to North America,Japanese Witchhazel they found a tree with leaves that looked very similar to the hazel trees back home. So they called them, Witch Hazels.—However, the hamamelis virgianiana was no relation, it just has very similar leaves. Native American tribes had already found dozens of medical uses for an infusion of Witch Hazel leaves, bark or twigs. Eventually, that liquid would be distilled and sold as Witch Hazel. Japanese Witch Hazel is used more commercially now, and that might be why it was planted near the European Hazel in Maxwell. Another difference between hazels and witch hazels is that the corylus have separate male and female flowers. The male flowers are called catkins and the female flowers look more like leaf buds, with tiny red tufts.

The witch hazels have both male and female parts to their flowers (perfect flowers), which are tiny and appear in late fall or winter. says that the witch hazel produces a capsule-like fruit with two shiny black seeds, that the capsules pop and send the seed flying, and the seeds taste similar to pistachio nuts. I do not know if the    ones in Maxwell produce fruit. That is something to watch for in later months.                  
Witch hazel was one of the few commercial treatments for acne when I was a teenager,
but young people today have better treatments available and many have never heard of
witch hazel, though it is used in many cosmetic products. It still removes excess oil without
drying the skin as much as rubbing alcohol. Actually the witch hazel deserves its own story.


two hazels
left: European Filbert, right: Japanese Witchhazel
Maxwell Arboretum, north entrance


Tales From Across the Pond: Hawthorn
by Carol Speth


There is no pond in Maxwell Arboretum, but when my
grandpa used to talk about the Old Country (in his case,
Germany) he called it Across the Pond.



In Maxwell Arboretum, north of the gazebo, on the west side of the path, Hawthornthere is a Cockspur Hawthorn tree. I took this photo on May 30, 2009, near the end of its blooming period. In Britain, Hawthorns were planted in hedges like the hedge apple was used in Nebraska.

The Hawthorn was one of the Sacred Trees of the Celtic peoples. Trees with white flowers such as the Hawthorn and Rowan were considered Fairy Trees.—You did not mess with the fairies' favorite trees if you knew what was good for you! The Hawthorn is also called the Mayflower, so the ship that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts was named for that tree. Until Great Britain and her colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, the Hawthorn bloomed for May Day, but since then it blooms later in the month.

The most famous Hawthorn of all is the Glastonbury Thorn in England. There are many legends about it, and I've pieced this version together from several sources. Those who know the Easter story in the Bible remember that Joseph of Arimathea offered a tomb for Jesus' body to be laid after the crucifixion. According to legend, Joseph was Jesus' uncle or great-uncle, and he was a wealthy tin merchant who sometimes traveled to what is now southwestern England, where the ore was mined since ancient days. It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. We know tin was used to make bronze, which was used in the Holy Land, and there were not a lot of places tin could be mined. Phoenician ships had long been were engaged in this trade.

According to legend, Joseph came to Glastonbury in southeastern England in 63 A.D., stuck his staff into the ground while he took a nap, and the staff grew into the first Glastonbury Thorn. In some stories, the staff was made from the same tree that produced the thorns in Jesus' Crown.
It is said that the first Christian church in England, named for Jesus' mother Mary, was built nearby from woven willow branches (a common form of construction at that time). Eventually, Glastonbury Abbey was built there. People cared for the tree until a Puritan soldier cut it down in 1653. But people had already taken cuttings and grafted them to other Hawthorn roots. The Glastonbury Thorn Tree there now began as one of the cuttings.

The unique thing about the Glastonbury Thorn is that it blooms twice a year, once at Christmas and once in May. A bouquet of its blooms is still sent to the British Queen for her table on Christmas Day. Recent science has allowed us to find some truth behind the legends. This trait only comes from the cuttings, which are related to trees from Palestine or that part of the world. The Christmas blooms do not produce fruit. Seedlings from the May flowers that set fruit do not bloom in December. The cuttings only survive if they are grafted to native rootstock.

If you don't believe that the staff actually came to life, remember that someone a long time ago went to a good deal of trouble to perpetuate a type of non-native tree, possibly one particular tree, in a far-away land. Hundreds of years later, people are still caring for its descendants, undeterred by religious fanatics. Even that seems like a miracle to me.

 Hawthorn map


Tales From Across the Pond: Holly

by Carol Speth

Hello Holly
We are coming to the Winter Solstice. It may be just another day in the Christmas shopping season for us. We forget how important the Winter Solstice was to people before electricity. (Think of Newgrange, the great Neolithic temple and burial place in Ireland that is illuminated by natural light only during the Winter Solstice, showing how important that day was to them.) When the days finally stopped getting shorter and started getting longer, it was a time of celebration and hope for many cultures. This was especially true in areas like Scotland and Scandinavia that are farther north where the winter nights are even longer than ours. The date and activities chosen to celebrate Christmas owed a lot to earlier observance of the Winter Solstice. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia just after the Solstice, and the date and some of the customs sort of morphed into Christmas.

In Celtic belief, the time between the Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice was ruled over by the Holly King, partly because the holly leaves stayed green all winter while the oak leaves turned brown and fell. Long before Christianity, people decorated their homes with holly at this time of year. The sharp leaves were thought to ward off evil and perhaps offer shelter for the fairies. But when the days began to lengthen, it was time for the Oak King to rule again. According to Celtic folklore, the Holly and Oak Kings were twin brothers who battled for supremacy twice a year. Neither could win a complete victory, so they each ruled for half the year.

Soon after the Winter Solstice, the holly would be taken down. Perhaps it was time to shoe the fairies outside before they started doing mischief! The Christians tried to re-purpose the symbolism. The Christmas song, The Holly and the Ivy—compares the sharply pointed leaves to the crown of thorns and the red berries to the blood of Christ.

The English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is a tree, but the American holly (Ilex opaca) is just a shrub. The website, is a good source for the many varieties of holly available now, some as small as six inches tall. According to D.J. Conway's book, Celtic Magic, when planted outside the house, holly repels negative spells sent against you. If you a believer in the power of plants and trees, you should plant some holly for luck. If not, plant some because it's so cheery on a winter day!

There is holly at the southeast corner of The Porch on East Campus. The leaves were bright and shiny even on a cloudy day in December. Emily Levine told me to also look at the one north of the Biochemistry Building. That one has more pretty red berries. There is another near the footbridge.



*Carol Speth, Ph.D., is an Office Assistant in the Agronomy and Horticulture Department where she has worked for ten years. She worked in Scotland from 1993-95 and likes to pretend she's still there by connecting its trees and plants to what she sees in Maxwell Arboretum and in Nebraska generally. She studied to be a history teacher long ago. (History was what you might call an "unrequited love.") She inherited her parents' perennials and their love of plants.