Apart from ash, hazel is one of the most widely used woods by stickmakers – most frequently as shanks for sticks with an added handle.
Here in Ireland it grows in hedgerows, woods and forests, parks, waste ground, railway embankments, beside canals and rivers, and just about anywhere else you can think of. It will grow in almost any sort of soil – alkaline, moderately acid, dry, damp, wet, chalky, loamy, sandy, stoney or humus.
Hazel was a traditional building material, used in the construction of wattle walls, hurdles, fencing and thatching. It was also used to make bobbins for the textile industry. Of course hazel also produces delicious and wholesome nuts.
Hazel sends up many shoots from the base, growing into multiple stems which compete with each other and neighbouring trees to reach the light. This produces long, straight stems, often with very few side branches. The resulting clump of stems is known as a ‘stool’. Often a thick branch gets laid flat by accident or design and sends up a good number of straight vertical stems. Such stems are very suitable for making one-piece sticks because they cannot be beaten for strength and balance.
The shank of a hazel stick combines strength with light weight. The bark can be very variable in colour, ranging from dark reddish brown to light grey. The outermost layer of bark is sometimes a thin film of silver or gold with a metallic sheen to it. Mottled forms, combining a range of different colours, can look particularly attractive.
If the bark is stripped a hazel shank is a uniform pale colour but an interesting effect can be obtained by sanding the shank down to reveal patches of pale wood contrasting with the richer colours of the remaining bark.
Hazel was an important tree in Irish mythology. It represented the letter ‘Coll’, which was the ninth letter of the Irish Bardic Ogham alphabet. It gave its name to a God named MacColl (son of Hazel), who according to Keating’s history of Ireland was one of the earliest rulers Ireland, his brothers being MacCeacht (son of the plough) and MacGreine (son of the Sun). They celebrated a triple marriage with the Triple Goddess of Ireland – Eire, Fodhla and Banbha.
The leaves are arranged alternately around the stem. They are almost round in shape but broadest near to the tip (apex) of the leaf.
The leaf edge is noticeably toothed.
The leaf stalk and underside of the leaf are hairy.
The Hazel in Celtic mythology is associated with magic, wisdom and poetry. Its fruit- (the hazel nut)- was a great source of nourishment in ancient times and is still collected by local families in the autumn. Its wood was used for making furniture, fencing and wickerwork. In our community garden we have used it in conjunction with willow branches to make fences.
Druid wands were made from hazel. Because the tree grew near water, it also has strong connections with fertility. It was believed too that the source of Ireland’s most scared rivers, Shannon and Boyne, were to be found at wells guarded by hazel trees whose nuts would impart great knowledge and magical prowess to those that eat them. Its twigs were used by diviners to locate water underground.