Zone 2 Hardy Hybrid Hazelnuts
Updated Nov. 2020
Starting germplasm: Starting in the 1940s, Les Kerr of the Forestry farm (Saskatoon) intercrossed wild prairie hardy American Hazelnuts (Corylus americana, believed to be collected from Manitoba) with cultivated European Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) and bred them until the early 1980s. The University of Saskatchewan took over his breeding program in the mid 1980s and began collecting his better selections from many sites throughout Saskatchewan. In the late 1980s, Rick Sawatzky (of the U of S) began crossing these selections with pollen from Oregon State University (Corylus avellana) with a goal of increasing nut size and quality.
First Generation: the F1 hybrids between Oregon and Les Kerr material were borderline Hardy. It took about 10 years for them to start producing nuts because they frequently had dieback. It seemed we needed at least 2 mild winters in a row to have a large crop. It was noticed that many of the first generation seedlings had a desirable characteristic which Rick called "self blanching". This is where the paper that covers nuts sticks to the shell when it is cracked open instead of nuts. We decided to cut down all the seedlings that were not self blanketing, thus allowing open pollination of self blanching types. This occurred around the year 2005. There were about 200 seedlings in the first generation.
This first generation grew to be 12 to 15 feet tall while a row of Les Kerr selections grew only 7 to 9 feet tall. Small nut size is highly dominant in this group.
During the early 2000s, we sold hazelnut seedlings to interested growers with a warning that we only expected one out of three to be winter Hardy. (It seemed that 80% of our customers were from Alberta.) Growers signed agreements with the understanding that the University of Saskatchewan owns rights to any potential varieties that arose from the seedlings. But we have not really heard from growers about the seedlings whether they have found anything worthwhile.
For USask plantings, we saved seeds from the self blanching group but in the vicinity were smaller Les Kerr selections which could have pollinated them. There was also a superior Les Kerr selection that was extremely productive and was used in controlled crosses. The second-generation is a mixture of F2's and back crosses to Les Kerr selections. We planted about 500 seedlings in this generation but only about 300 survived to bear nuts. They started producing around the year 2012.
Controlled crosses and open pollinated seeds were collected from this group to form the 3rd generation. In 2017, we evaluated the 2nd generation for productivity and cut down 80% of the collection to allow cross pollination amongst the better ones.
While we have determined 10 advanced selections that may be useful for further studies, we do not feel they are good enough to be released especially since they have not been put in trials. But nut size still is small and some shells are too thick.
Dr. Martin Reaney, in our department, has been involved in evaluating these advanced selections for oil content. Since his evaluation techniques are nondestructive, we are able to save seeds with the highest content and plant them in a special group.
3rd generation: We now have 3 fields of third-generation material. Perhaps there are 3000 hazelnut plants. Because hardiness was strongly selected in the second-generation, we are finding that survival is quite high in most fields. The oldest field is 7 years old (in 2020) with only a few bushes producing nuts this year. The other 2 fields are only a few years old. There had been an additional field of third-generation which we believe was mostly killed off through using Casoron at too early an age.
Eastern Filbert blight: We have not deliberately screened for blight but it is present in our plants. However, it is very rare and those that get infected seemed to have low levels of the disease.
Grimo hazelnuts: we received some hazelnuts from Grimo Nursery which we grafted onto our plants. Unfortunately these did not survive our winters.
Future: We are hopeful that something in the 3rd generation might be worthy of releasing. We are considering backcrossing to cultivars with a larger nut size from warmer areas.
We have not received financial assistance for hazelnut breeding from either the provincial or federal governments. We have been relying on royalties mostly generated from our haskap breeding program. There are Agriculture Canada researchers in Indian head Saskatchewan who have written a couple grants for a cooperative project, but so far the first of these has been turned down. Perhaps they will be successful in 2021. We are especially hopeful that project with agriculture Canada would allow much larger acreage to be grown for hazelnut breeding. We are very limited for space at the University of Saskatchewan fields.
We feel strongly that hazelnut breeding is worthwhile and we will continue breeding with this crop. Perhaps our breeding of this crop will mimic our experience with haskap. For many years we worked on haskap without government funding for that crop. But once we had released a few haskap cultivars, then Sask Ag began accepting our haskap proposals.