Hazelnuts—also known as filberts—continue to increase in popularity worldwide for their use in many culinary products including various confections, nut butters, and baked goods.
Well documented health benefits associated with the consumption of tree nuts—including hazelnuts—have added to their increasing demand. Beyond demand for the nuts, the crop’s low input production needs, sustainability, and other favorable traits (i.e., highly mechanized harvest, wind pollination doesn’t require bees, long-lived orchards) adds to the interest in devoting acreage to this crop, which can include both conventional and organic systems across a variety of regions.
Nearly all hazelnut production worldwide is based on the European hazelnut species, Corylus avellana. Historically, U.S. production has been centered in the Willamette Valley of Oregon where 99% of the U.S. crop is still grown. In the eastern U.S., despite an amenable climate in many regions, the presence of eastern filbert blight, a disease caused by a native fungus (Anisogramma anomala), has made the growing of European hazelnuts nearly impossible.
The Quest to Overcome Eastern Filbert Blight Begins at Rutgers
Recognizing the significant opportunity that exists with this low-input, high-value tree crop, an ambitious project was initiated at Rutgers University in 1996 by turfgrass breeder, professor C. Reed Funk, aided by his then Rutgers (Cook College) undergraduate student Tom Molnar, now Rutgers associate professor in plant biology. The goal was to overcome eastern filbert blight disease of hazelnuts through breeding and help initiate hazelnut production in New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic region.
The hazelnut project has continued in earnest since its inception, bolstered by close collaboration with partners at Oregon State University, and later, members of the Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium. Rutgers field researcher John Capik joined the team in 2005 and since then the project has expanded to include many graduate and undergraduate students and others in the Plant Biology department including professor Bradley Hillman and assistant research professor Josh Honig.
From these collaborative, long-term efforts, which include the collection and evaluation of hazelnut trees originating from all over the world, many disease–resistant hazelnut trees were identified. These special, resistant trees were subsequently used in breeding to increase kernel quality and yields in the next generation. Tens of thousands of new seedlings were planted in the field, and from them elite individuals were selected to then be tested in yield trials (and for continued breeding) at Rutgers research farms and other locations.
Launching a New Opportunity for Mid-Atlantic Growers: First Disease-Resistant Hazelnut Cultivars are Introduced
Finally, in 2020 the first hazelnut cultivars from the Rutgers program were released to growers. They are named ‘Raritan‘—in honor of the river whose banks upon which Rutgers University lies—as well as ‘Somerset,’ ‘Monmouth,’ and ‘Hunterdon‘—named for the first New Jersey counties where the trees are being grown.
The new cultivars are pure European hazelnuts adapted to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 and 7. An additional cultivar, the hybrid hazelnut ‘OSU 541.147’ “The Beast™“, was released in 2020 through the Hybrid Hazelnut Consortium. This cultivar is a cross between the European hazelnut and the wild American species Corylus americana. It is a high yielding, vigorous tree that works as an excellent pollinizer when grown alongside the other four Rutgers cultivars.
Today, hazelnut breeding and research efforts continue at Rutgers University with goals to support the emerging eastern U.S. hazelnut industry with a diversity of improved disease-resistant cultivars. The team is also working with partners to develop improved hybrid hazelnuts that have excellent kernel quality, high yields, and adaptation to much colder regions. This includes the wide collection and study of our native Corylus americana.
For further details on each of the new plants, visit Rutgers Ag products. More information on hazelnut selection is available in the Rutgers Cooperative Extension bulletin “Choosing Plants for a Hazelnut Orchard in New Jersey.“
For questions and/or to be added to the Rutgers NJAES hazelnut contact list for updates, announcements, and a quarterly hazelnut newsletter, contact Thomas Molnar (firstname.lastname@example.org).