I am participating, in a small way, in a hazelnut breeding program run by Tom Molnar at Rutgers University (New Jersey).
The goal is to combine the quality and productivity of the European Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) with the toughness of the wild American Hazelnut (Corylus americana). This approach was tried in the 1920s with moderate success. Since the 1920s, the quality requirements have increased and there is a much deeper understanding of the risks of cantilevering multiple generations of breeding from a narrow genetic base.
Recent advances in the statistical analysis and visualization of the genetic composition of individual specimens give the breeder the tools to ensure that multiple sources of resistance are stacked in a "released" variety. But the breeder must first identify those sources of resistance before he can breed them in and check for them.
Hazelnut breeding is still at a very foundational level. Hazelnut breeders are currently surveying wild populations of American Hazelnuts across a wide swath of it native range to identify and isolate the sources of Eastern Filbert Blight resistance, Big Bud Mite resistance, and resistance to cold damage of catkins (source of the pollen).
By way of illustrating the depths of our ignorance we do not know simple things like:
- Is the resistance catkins have to cold/dehydration is due to their position within the bush (more shading = less dehydration)?
- Is it due towaxiness, or some other intrinsic armor against cold and dryness?
- Or is itdue to the catkins being carried low on the bush and getting covered by drifting snow during test winters?
- Or is it due to factors we have not even considered?
. We just don't know.
My part in the script is simple. I find Michigan hazelnut bushes in the wild. I sweet talk the land owners into letting me harvest the nuts. I mail the nuts to Tom Molnar.
|Close up of nuts in bag.|
And prospecting for hazelnuts has its Indiana Jones moments. I had to work through a little bit of weather. Walter Mitty has nothing on me.