There are two species of hazels native to North Dakota, the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) and beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta). Both species produce edible and tasty hazelnuts. The two species are quite similar vegetatively. Both are shrubs that grow to six feet or so, with the American hazelnut being generally a little shorter. The leaves are similar, alternate, simple, with doubly serrate (toothed) margins.
Beaked hazel dominates the shrub understory of the Turtle Mountain aspen forest as well as in the Pembina Hills and woodlands associated with the Sheyenne River. It can also be found in woodlands and thickets in several counties across the state. The American hazelnut, however, is more widely distributed across the state and as you might expect, occupies similar habitats.
Because the two species are so similar vegetatively, they are often difficult to differentiate. But now when they are in fruit, identification is easy. Beaked hazel, as the name implies produces the nuts in a green husk that forms a tube, or “beak” about an inch long. But be aware that the husk has a dense covering of bristly hairs, which can irritate the skin in a way similar to that of fiberglass. Also, the nuts are generally observed to be produced individually or in pairs with the beaks opposite each other.
The fruit of American hazelnut, on the other hand, is contained within a husk composed of leafy like bracts that culminate in a rather flattened, ragged margin. These nuts are generally produced in clusters of two to three.
Few people take the time to collect wild hazelnuts, but if you are so inclined, now might be a good time to give it a try, that is unless the squirrels and other animals have got to them already. The nuts of both species are edible and tasty, but please note that the bristles of beaked hazel may be quite irritating, so many people wear gloves when husking the beaked hazel. The American hazelnut is much easier to handle because they lack the hairs.