Back in early October, my friend Erin and I toured the Corylus collection at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) in Corvallis, Oregon, and basically we were like kids in a candy store. Once again, my friend and neighbor Joseph Postman, a plant pathologist at the facility, welcomed us, provided us with some literature about the collection, and quickly toured us through the rows before turning us loose to gather and admire whatever we wanted.
The orchard is home to over 800 trees including hazelnut cultivars and selections and their wild relatives originating all over the world as well quite a few varieties developed right here in Corvallis by acclaimed hazelnut breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher. Many of the trees are well established, but Joseph continues to plant saplings of newly acquired varieties from around the world as well as those that have been clonally propagated from brand new, not-yet-named varieties bred for their resistance to Eastern Filbert Blight and for other characteristics.
Like for most plant collections at the facility, the horticulturalists at the NCGR are primarily focused on keeping these trees alive for propagation and research purposes, so the hazelnut orchard at the germplasm repository in Corvallis isn’t tended the same way that a commercial hazelnut orchard would be. There’s grass growing in the rows, the plane of the land is pitted and bumpy, and the trees themselves are growing in many physical forms.
Generally speaking, each accession is represented by one tree in the orchard. A tag hangs on each tree documenting the variety name, origin, location in the orchard, and other identifying information.
The nuts are simply a byproduct of the tree preservation efforts, so most of them fall to the ground and remain there. Erin and I went to town filling bags and baskets with nuts. We consulted the NCGR’s list of “Breeder’s Choice” varieties, and gathered and labeled quite a few nuts from trees on the list, but we also stopped to collect nuts dropped from many other trees. Seeing all the nuts laying out and knowing that they were probably going to go to waste was a ridiculous motivator that kept us there longer than our schedules really allowed. It was SO much fun.
Erin, a flower farmer and florist, was intrigued by some of the attractive papery filbert clusters, and she had great ideas about how they could be used in floral arrangements.
Joseph explained that every few years he runs a rototiller-like piece of equipment down the rows to churn under many of the accumulated shells and twigs for somewhat more efficient composting. When we were there, all of last year’s nuts were still laying on the surface, but they were easily distinguishable from fresh nuts by their color and luster.
After I got home, I let all my various bags and baskets of nuts dry out for a couple weeks before I started shelling them. The diversity of shapes (round, faceted, bullet-like), sizes (pea to quarter coin diameter), and subtle color differences among the different hazelnut varieties was pretty astounding. Some small shells were completely filled, and some large shells only held puny little nuts.
The kernels themselves also came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
I think my favorite of all the kinds I gathered and sampled is the ‘Corabel’ (above). They’re big, beautiful nuts that are easy to crack. When roasted, the skins around the kernels rub off without much effort, and they taste delicious.
After we had been picking nuts up off the ground for a while, Erin and I noticed that some of them had little holes in the sides or ends. We cracked a few of these nuts while in the orchard and quickly realized that the holey ones had resident filbertworms and were no good. We tried to avoid the wormy nuts by leaving them on the ground when we saw the holes, but about 20% of the ones we brought home also had worms in them.
Commercial filbert growers apply a variety of herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides to their orchards throughout the year for weed control and to prevent damage to the crop from disease and pests including filbertworms. The horticulturalists at the NCGR do spray the orchard occasionally to keep grass from competing with young trees and to protect the trees from Eastern Filbert Blight, but the management plan there does not include practices to prevent pests in the nuts.
In September, Henry and I attended the Benton Soil and Water Conservation District annual meeting at beautiful Tyee Wine Cellars. Dave Buchanan, owner and farmer, led the group on a quick tour of the property. He explained that the grapes at Tyee are certified organic and certified salmon safe because the owners care about their impact on the soil and the surrounding ecosystem. Their filbert orchard, however, is not organic because sometimes chemicals are necessary to control pests and diseases.
I know for a fact that organic hazelnuts do exist because the good folks at La Mancha Ranch and Orchard are down at our local farmers’ market every weekend selling them. I’m not quite sure how they are able to manage pests and diseases without chemicals, but I’ve tasted their nuts, and they’re delicious. Maybe I should investigate their program more thoroughly.
Nuts with filbertworms in them are ruined.
As I was shelling nuts, Charlotte, my bug-loving child, was super excited to collect a bunch of filbertworms in a jar with holes poked in the lid. She even brought her little “wormy-worm” habitat to school for Show and Tell. All the kids in Charlotte’s class thought her collection was pretty awesome.
A few more things about hazelnuts/filberts:
The Corylus page of the NCGR website has some great information and links to hazelnut industry sites of importance including this hazelnut growers handbook.
If you’re in the Corvallis area and you want some good nuts, The Peach Place‘s filberts at the Corvallis Saturday Farmers’ Market are reliably good, and they’re really nice folks. Also La Mancha Ranch and Orchard (mentioned above) offers organic hazelnuts. If you’re not in Oregon, there’s a list of distributers that sell and ship Oregon hazelnuts around the country here.
In case you missed it, you can read and see more about the hazelnut harvest in a commercial orchard here.
In the past year, my family and I have eaten a LOT of hazelnuts. Simply roasted filberts are a real treat and a healthy snack, but we’ve also enjoyed them in many different recipes including David Lebovitz‘s “Best Granola” (sub hazelnuts in place of almonds), Megan Gordan‘s “Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Spread” (Buy her cookbook Whole Grain Mornings!), countless batches of muffins, and hundreds of salads that needed a crunchy topping. I’m dying to try out Deb Pearlman‘s “Chocolate and Toasted Hazelnut Milk“, and Heidi Swanson just posted a recipe for “Roasted Cauliflower Rice” with a healthy dose of hazelnuts that sounds pretty darn good. If you’re interested in making hazelnut meal for cakes and such, David Lebovitz has some good tips for making almond meal that apply to filberts, too. I’ve also discovered recently that my favorite food in the world (other than pizza) is dukkah, a hazelnut-based condiment, so I’ll be posting a recipe for that soonish.
This visit was my fifth visit to the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis. You can read and see more about touring other collections at the facility in the WS archive (though I didn’t photograph the world collection of pear varieties that I wandered through this summer with my friend Yossy): Kiwis and Quince, Quince and other rare fruits, and Currants and Gooseberries. Next year, I would really like to put together some sort of organized tour of one or more collections at the NCGR and welcome Wayward Spark readers and friends along. What do you think? Do you want to come out and sample currants, blueberries, pears, or filberts with me? I think it would be really fun, so stay tuned for more info.