By Chelsey Geralda Armstrong

On Day 5 of the advent botany series this year we heard about the world’s 4th largest nut crop, the European Hazelnut (Corylus avellena). But, it’s poorly known cousin in the Pacific Northwest of North America, the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), is also a classic Christmas favourite!  The name ‘cornuta’ means ‘horned’, appropriate for this species.

Glass jar of Sgan t’sek
Sgan t’sek, native Hazelnut in the Pacific Northwest


Beaked hazelnut produces a slightly smaller nut than hazel but can grow up to ten meters high. The Yurok Indigenous people of California still burn hazelnut to encourage the growth of young, straight shoots used in weaving. First Nations in British Columbia used slightly older shoots for making projectile shafts and other tools. The root was boiled to produce a blue dye, oily shells were used to keep fires burning and the nut was eaten or roasted and its oil rendered for chest and lung medicines. At one point, hazelnuts were an important currency in Southern British Columbia and a large sack of hazelnuts was a typical bride price!

The distinctive ‘beak’ of Corylus cornuta

Although hazelnut is considered a wild shrub, ethnobotanists have been working with Indigenous people on documenting the ancient and recent management of sgan t’sek (hazelnut in the Gitxsan language). This “wild” shrub was likely managed using fire, coppicing, and was transplanted long distances – effectively creating little human-made hazelnut patches throughout Western Canada. One disjunct population in Northern British Columbia grows exclusively on old archaeological sites and in pairs, with another local favourite, native Pacific crab apple (Malus fusca).

Native range of Corylus cornuta, the beaked hazelnut

After settler-colonial contact and widespread missionary work throughout British Columbia, a synchronicity of Indigenous practices exploded out of the resistance or adaptation to European traditions. Nlaka’pamux Elder, Marion Dixon remembers sewing little bags that were stuffed with local hazelnuts, and walnuts her grandfather bought from the store. A candy was placed on top of the bag and under the tree it went, “that’s all we ever got for Christmas, maybe some shoes if you were lucky.” During the Christmas celebrations Marion also remembers her grandmother crushing up the nuts to make a coffee-like drink. Darlene Vegh from Gitxsan territories told us it was the children’s duty to collect nuts in the fall, they would store them in the attic to let the involucres (green husk-like firs), rot off and by Christmas they were ready to go!

When discussing the hazelnut harvests in Northern British Columbia, most people lament how the squirrels seem to “get there first”. Indeed, between August and September hazelnut groves are absolutely teeming with squirrels! When asked if the squirrels disturb his hazelnut harvest, one Gitxsan Elder replied “they don’t bother me they help me!” – he would wait for the squirrels to clean the involucres aggregate and bury them, then raid their caches throughout the year.

So if you’re looking for a fun activity over the holidays, find a nice hazelnut grove and start poking around for a hard-earned Christmas treat!


Armstrong, C.G., Dixon, W.M. & Turner, N.J. (2018). Management and Traditional Production of Beaked Hazelnut (k’áp’xw-az’, Corylus cornuta; Betulaceae) in British Columbia. Hum Ecol 46, 547–559

Editor’s note

Armstrong et al. (2018) report native red squirrels squirrels to be a problem in harvesting these nuts, just as Vickery (2019) reposts problems of the introduced grey squirrels in the UK.

“During interviews, an overwhelming majority of participantsmention theBpesky squirrels that compete with harvesters togather nuts in the late summer and early fall. The native red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), whose range overlapswith hazelnut in BC, causes the most strife for pickers and farmers. Marion recalls one method of outsmarting the small rodents using decoy plots:

‘…to get them away you pick a whole bunch, the left-overs from last year that are not in the wrappers [involucres] anymore. We take them and we a dig a little trench far away from the trees where we had our bushes and then, we put them over there so the squirrels are all busy over there while we’re [picking]…'”

For more #AdventBotany see our 2020 index page.

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