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American Hazelnut Tree

Back in 2006, Ferraro Rocher built a new confectionery plant in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. This plant was to be the center of their North American operations. In order to run this facility at its limits 12 – 15,000 acres of hazelnuts had to be planted in Ontario. Though 80% of worldwide hazelnuts are grown in Turkey, shortages in hazelnuts brought Ferraro to Canada. Incentives through Growing Forward 2 (GF2) were made available to entrepreneurial farmers. Recently, in August 2017, the Ferraro plant had expanded, again. This is the only Ferraro plant in North America and the 8th largest plant, worldwide.

There is no doubt, agriculturally, that this is a wonderful opportunity for Ontario farmers. But as I researched this topic, a feeling of uneasiness began. So let us explore this topic together.

Hazelnuts are actually part of the Birch family and is a very widespread species. It is in most of Europe and parts of Asia. In North America, there are only 2 native species indigenous to Ontario. The American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) is our Carolinian species residing throughout much of the traditional Carolinian zone up to the Lake of Woods. The Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) is our hardy northern variety ranging throughout Ontario up to 50 degrees N.

Ferraro has very specific nut size and quality requirements which, unfortunately, our native hazelnut cannot fulfill. European hazelnuts do fulfill these specifications but cannot survive in North America. Why? The first difficulty is the Eastern Filbert Blight. The fungus Anisogramma anomola is native to North America and carries the blight. While our native Ontario hazelnuts are hosts to this fungus they are not harmed by this blight. The exact opposite is true for the European hazelnuts. In early spring the spores of the fungus are released into the atmosphere. Developing buds germinate these spores and the blight slowly grows. After 2 years black cankers develop on branches and within 5 – 10 years the tree is dead. The second difficulty for European hazelnut, is cold temperatures where all plant parts are killed by cold. Of special concern, is catkin survival. If catkins freeze off, then no pollinated fruit will grow – the nuts.

The obvious solution was to create hybrids. Crossing European X North American hazelnuts. To date, many varieties have been developed and tried with success. In order to maintain genetic purity of these crosses and to increase propagation rates, new rapid cloning techniques have been developed. No perpetuation of the crosses through seed production and seedlings, just clones.

Fact sheets have been published to help with orchard designs, variety selections, etc. It was while I was studying the fact sheets that some uneasiness developed. From one fact sheet concerning wind breaks,

‘though hazelnuts are wind pollinated, they need some air movement to transfer pollen. A wind break stops damage from strong winds. Although natural forested areas promote a healthy environment and can shelter nearby hazelnut orchards, orchard are often affected by insect pests and diseases commonly found in Southern Ontario forests. Wild hazelnut can harbor insect pests and diseases. Eastern Filbert Blight can be transmitted from wild to cultivated trees.’

Sounds to me that the native hazelnut is unwelcome near any cultivated orchard. Considering that up to 40,000 acres are going to be potentially planted, sounds like a lot of the Carolinian zone is unwelcome area to our native hazelnut. Another uneasy point is from another fact sheet,

‘ Hazelnuts must cross pollinate with other compatible varieties. It has yet to be determined if wild hazelnut will help pollinate orchards. Sounds like we do not need the genetic information from the wild hazelnut anymore. Their genetics were wonderful for creating these varietals, but now they are not needed as breeding stock.

My last concern lied in the promotion of these cloned varietals over native. When you surf the internet there are more sources for varietals than native. So we are potentially downsizing the native population and not having native readily promoted or available. Every time we promote non native or hybrids over native species the native species populations show a negative effect. My concerns may be unjustified but only time will tell. Just to ease my conscience and to be on the safe side, we have added this lovely tree to our species listing at our nursery.

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