For ease of care and four-season interest, it’s hard to beat American hazelnut (Corylus americana). It’s one of two North American hazelnuts (the other is Corylus cornuta, beaked hazelnut, a more northern species), and it’s native throughout much of the eastern half of the continent. It’s a highly adaptable, easy-to-grow plant, although it prefers well-drained soil and at least a few hours of sun.
This is a large shrub that does well as a specimen or as part of a hedgerow or shrub island. It wants to be over 12 feet high and about two-thirds as wide, but you can easily keep it smaller by pruning out the largest stems each winter. The plant will respond by growing lots of new, smaller canes.
I’ve had these beautiful shrubs in my garden for over 10 years, and they produce copious amounts of nuts, but I have never tasted one. (I’m sure they’re delicious.) I rarely see them on the trees when they’re ripe. They look like this just before the casings open and release the nuts:
But usually all we see is the broken shells left on the ground after the squirrels and birds eat their fill.
Hazelnuts belong to the Betulaceae plant family; their cousins are birches and alders and hornbeams. They are our earliest shrub to bloom, and this year they should be in full bloom within the next couple of days. The tiny red female flowers and the long, slender male catkins grow on the same branches and are wind-pollinated.
Soon every puff of wind will release a minute cloud of pollen granules from the male flowers.