Observation will always have its rewards …

As a bushcraft instructor I have spent many years developing my ability to notice clues and signs in the natural world. These observation skills can be applied to multiple different fields of enquiry in the world of bushcraft and survival. The smallest things can often make the biggest difference. At the heart of all good observation is being present in the moment and receptive to details you are observing and allowing your other senses to join the experience. In the 21st Century our senses are very dominated by sight. The eye is constantly being bombarded with stimulation that it is little wonder that the other senses we possess can get pushed to the background.

I want to tell you a little story about an unlikely foraging experience I had in the most unlikely of places. I love taking customers out on foraging walks in the woods and introducing them to plants and their many and varied uses. Telling stories of folklore, medicinal and edible uses. We have a romanticized view of a walk in the countryside filling our basket with foraged edibles and returning back to the homestead to conjure up a magnificent meal from our gathered items, but I think it is so important to be awake and alert to opportunities to forage where ever they present themselves.

Turkish hazelnut Corylus colurna Image credit: Richard Arnott

Late August last year I happened to be at my local supermarket buying a few bits to cook the family evening meal. As I parked my vehicle and stepped out, I heard a crunching sound under foot, so being inquisitive I bent down and picked up the shells from the ground. I looked up into the canopy of the tree that it had fallen from to work out what it was. The shell contained many nuts that looked very like hazel nuts, but the husk was a little sticky and the bark of the tree did not resemble our native Hazel, Corylus avellana, so it got me thinking that this must be a different species of Hazel. The trees where being used in an amenity landscape to delineate the parking areas. This monoculture amenity planting had until that moment not spoken to me as being a foraging opportunity, as until that moment it had just been rows of trees greening up an otherwise municipal, urban space. I took a small handful of the husks from the ground containing the nuts and carried on with my shopping. On returning home I looked up the tree and discover that it was Turkish Hazel, Corylus colurna.

Turkish hazelnut and husk Corylus colurna Image credit: Richard Arnott

Turkish hazel is from South East Europe and West Asia and was introduced to Britain in the 1580’s. It has roughly textured, corky bark which is different from the smoother bark of our native hazel Corylus avellana. It is in the Betulaceae family along with birches and hornbeams all of which are catkin bearing trees. It produces long , yellow catkins in early spring and striking clusters of fringed nuts in late summer and early autumn. It has become very popular as a parkland and avenue tree where it can reach 20 plus metres, and is tolerant of paved areas which has made it a good car park tree. It has become a substitute for lime to combat the issue of aphid drop on parked cars and pedestrian surfaces. So it should be no surprise that it has been selected for a supermarket car park.

I love the husks that hold the nuts. As you can see the twisted form is very eye catching and a key identification feature for this species of hazel. The ripening husks containing the nuts are sticky too which is another key identification feature.

Foraged turkish hazelnuts Corylus colurna Image credit: Richard Arnott

The unlikely location of this excellent source of foraging for carbohydrate is intensely ironic. On the one hand the location of the trees is in one of the busiest supermarkets in my area but right under all the shoppers’ noses is a simple, unprocessed, food for free item! It has no food miles attached to it yet most shoppers simply pass it by. Could it be that we are so programmed to get our food from the sanitized environment of the supermarket that we are blind to opportunity, even when it presents itself right under out feet?

I harvested three shopping bags worth of these delicious hazel nuts and processed them into my winter stores. I love that this is nature connection in an unlikely spot and has allowed me to eat carbohydrate in season as our ancestors would have done. For me, the act of observation is the key to discovering opportunities. Life is just so busy sometimes that we forget to slow down and take in the little clues and signs that are all around us.

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