Fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich was either very wise or just a nut. After a near-death illness, she had a series of visions. These illness-induced ideas led her to pen what has become known as the Revelations of Divine Love.
In these works, she sees God in a hazelnut.
While there are many studies and explanations of the meaning of her visions, its basis is something I can believe in. I, too, am enamored of hazelnuts. While I haven’t seen any images in the nuts I gathered last week, I can honestly say that they are truly divine.
The final filberts (another name for the American hazelnut) of the season were foraged from an up-Island field. Hazelnuts are easy to identify in the fall when the nuts have emerged. The nuts are encased in a husk — actually a modified leaf called involucres — that resembles a large prickly dried flower, which starts green but will eventually turn brown. These are attached to the shrub’s branches or, this time of year, have dropped to the ground.
It is the involucres that likely led to the naming of this plant. The word “hazel” comes from the Anglo-Saxon root “haesle,” meaning cap, and describes the covering of the nut.
Collecting a shopping bag full of these notable nuts was quick and easy, though the competition was likely close on my tail. Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, mice and a variety of birds, including blue jays, grouse, pheasants and turkeys, will pleasantly partake. We are all onto something good.
Hazelnuts are known to deliver a knockout for nutrition. They can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground up as paste or flour. These nuts are high in protein, fat (the good kind) and vitamin E. In fact, one source claimed that these nuts have more calories per hundred grams than meat. Survivalists (and hungry Islanders) should remember that fact in case of famine (or a storm that shuts the boats down for too long).
If it isn’t nutting season and the boats are running, the grocery stores will usually be stocked with hazelnuts in the form of the Italian treat Nutella. Nutella is a chocolate hazelnut spread made with at least 50 hazelnuts per 13-ounce jar that will calm your craving for filberts. Its origins go back to Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker who developed this delicacy during WWII, when chocolate and cocoa were in limited supply. He used hazelnuts to extend the chocolate supply and created an enduring and notable nut product. So, while Julian of Norwich couldn’t have foreseen the current popularity of Nutella, she might have predicted people’s predilection for these godly goodies.
Beyond the nut’s value as a food source, other parts of the shrub are heralded for their medicinal and mythological value or general usefulness. Medieval pilgrims were protected from ‘cutthroats and thieves’ by binding hazel branches to their walking sticks. Native Americans used a decoction of the raw nuts to control bleeding during childbirth, and one of the roots soothed teething in babies. In England, small branches gathered on Palm Sunday and kept inside in water protected the home from thunder and lightning, while a wreath of leaves kept ships safe from shipwrecks.
Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet observed that he “could be bounded in a nut shell and count [him]self a king of infinite space,” but Julian turned this quite around: she was unbounded by visions of a nut shell, and by setting her imagination free, could count herself queen of its infinite possibilities. Whatever the meaning of her visions, her praise for hazelnuts did not turn out to be just a dream.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.