At Christmas time when one thinks about the various traditions of the season associated with foods, there’s the obvious choices like eggnog, candy canes, Christmas oranges and gingerbread houses. But there are other ones in the minor key as well, and hazelnuts are certainly in this category of Christmas delights. They are especially delightful when you unwrap those scrumptious Ferrero Rochers or other assorted boxes of chocolates.
For all their prominence in the seasonal diet of North America, it might surprise one to learn that the types of hazelnuts we often consume are not native to our continent, nor can they even really grow under the harsh conditions here. They are imported from Europe. There are two other types of hardier breeds of hazelnuts native to North America— American hazelnuts and Beaked hazelnuts; of which only the Beaked hazelnuts grow naturally in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The American hazelnut is very similar in taste to the European varieties, but is tiny by comparison. The Beaked hazelnut is bird of another feather altogether. Bob Bors, head of the University of Saskatchewan’s Fruit Program explains further.
“The Beaked, when you take it off the bush you’ll get these little sharp hairs,” says Bors. “They are not quite cactus thorns, but they are not peach fuzz either. They are something in between which gets into your hands like a mini-cacti spine. They have to be picked and peeled with gloves.”
Long ago researchers rejected the Beaked variety as a viable cross-breeding candidate, but for the past 30 years or more many scientists and breeders have been attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to cross-breed the American hazelnut with the European variety so they can turn this into a potential cash crop in Canada and the United States. The idea is the American variety, while small, has a greater resistance to common hazel diseases and can survive in much harsher conditions than the European ones. The European hazelnut is much larger and therefore more commercially viable than its North American cousin. Why not merge the two together?
Easier said than done, says Bors.
“The native Canadian hazelnut is more like a bush, and the European one is a small tree. So we have lots of challenges in terms of proportion of breeding these two types together. When you cross something big with something little, little is dominant.”
The history of this type of hazelnut breeding has a checkered and complicated past in Saskatchewan also, which has led to less funding dollars, until recently, to bring the entire program together properly.
“There was this researcher by the name of Les Kerr,” explains Bors. “He was breeding them at the forestry farm in Saskatoon. He was crossing the wild, American hazelnut with the European one. He wasn’t supposed to be doing this. He was supposed to be working on shelter belts. He never reported anything about this, but he was breeding this stuff for decades. What he would do is hide his favourite hazelnuts and his cherries amongst his seedlings, and he would visit them on the sly and gather pollen, evaluate and breed them again. All the while never reporting to the federal government what he was up to.
“In the late 1980s,” continues Bors, “he was dying in the hospital and he called one of my predecessors Cecil Stushnoff over to tell him which farms had the best cherries and the best hazelnuts. He died a few weeks later. Cecil and my current assistant Rick Sawatzky visited those farms at the time they would be harvested to bring the best ones back here for breeding.”
From those initial choices Stushnoff and Sawatzky made the U of S hazelnut cross-breeding research program has grown to over 7,000 plants, and is now in its third generation of production. There has been some success in creating a larger variety of American hazelnut through the Fruit Program’s work, but it’s been inconsistent to date. Bors realizes it will take some time yet before he and his colleagues have produced a variety ready for widespread commercial trials.
“I call it my white hair project,” says Bors with a chuckle. “My hair is mostly gray now, but my goal is in maybe five years we’ll have close to ten thousand bushes in production and we can finally choose something good (to send out to growers). At this point, we’d be happy to get some hazelnuts that are the same size as you would find in a grocery store.”
Bors says what excites him about continuing to work on the hazelnut conundrum is the same things which excite him about all his ongoing fruit research.
“We (at the U of S Fruit Program) have the attitude we want to invent new things like our haskap, hazelnuts and cherries,” says Bors. “If you go to a more mainstream crop, you, as a researcher, can make it slightly better, but with our projects its the new frontier; something completely new for the prairies.”