- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
American hazelnuts and speckled alders are wild shrubs native to northeastern North America. Both species have beautiful, intriguing parts early in spring that make them interesting.
Both bushes are fairly common, each in its sun-filled habitat. And both are part of the beauty and intrigue of early spring in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Hazelnut shrubbery flourishes in sunny woodland clearings and edges and along hedgerows between fields. Their wooded, multi-stemmed crowns grow up to 15 feet tall. And they have unique flowers in March.
Each hazelnut shrub has male and female flowers. The many obvious male blossoms are 3-inch-long, pendulant catkins that sway back and forth in the wind. These attractive male catkins are yellow with pollen that is blown by the wind to female flowers.
The beautiful female blooms are clusters of two to five tiny, red styles protruding from each of several little, bark “vases” near the tips of slender twigs. The job of the styles is to receive pollen from male catkins and grow the nuts their shrubs are named for.
The nuts of American hazelnuts are lovely in and of themselves when ripe in September. They are warm brown and the diameter of dimes when mature. They developed in summer in green, leaf-like bracts that turn brown on their twig moorings toward autumn.
Several kinds of birds and mammals eat those pretty nuts during fall and winter, including wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, blue jays, white-tailed deer, foxes, and various kinds of rodents. Jays and squirrels stash many hazelnuts in tree cavities and holes they dig in the ground to house the nuts until they are consumed in winter.
Speckled alders grow almost exclusively on the edges of streams and ponds, where they associate with crack willows and red-twigged dogwoods. Alders often grow thickets of themselves along water, shading and cooling it.
Their many woody stems provide shelter for wildlife. And some beavers chew them off to use their stems in their dams and lodges.
Each alder has male and female blooms. The many attractive male catkins are 1 inch long and deep purple in winter. In March they grow to 4 inches, are pendulous, and are yellow with pollen.
Female catkins on alders grow to a half inch. They are upright and dull red and receive pollen from male catkins. Little clusters of half-inch, woody cones grow where female blossoms were.
A tiny, golden-brown seed grows under each protective scale of each cone. When the seeds mature, the scales die, turn brown, and open to release their seeds into the wind. Many seeds are eaten by mice and birds.
American hazelnuts and speckled alders benefit wildlife and have esthetic beauty to appreciate. But their greatest beauties are their unique flowers in March.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.