A Harvest of Wild Nuts

by Michael J. Caduto


Gathering wild nuts is a longstanding tradition among Western Abenaki. Historically, when garden soil became depleted and villages were moved to new ground, piles of acorns, butternuts, chestnuts, black walnuts, hazelnuts and others were placed around the new home site. Squirrels gathered and buried the nuts in secret caches. Stores that were forgotten grew orchard-like groves of “wild” nuts around the lodges.


The large number of squirrels foraging this year’s abundant nut crop show that this is an excellent year to gather. Eating wild nuts will also decrease your carbon nutprint*, especially considering the energy required to grow cultivated varieties, the fuel needed for transport, and the heavy use of packaging.


Butternut is used in everything from cakes to fudge. The Latin genus, Juglans, means “Jove” or “Jupiter” acorns, after the Roman god of the sky. Colonists boiled husks to render a yellow-orange dye for wool. Butternut grows in open fields, hedgerows, and young woodlots and bears oblong fruits. Although a canker (fungal disease) has stricken many of our butternut trees, some stalwart survivors still bear nuts, with sticky green husks covered with short brown hairs. Inside each husk is a stubborn shell that requires a nutcracker, hammer or rock. I once met a man who folded the nuts into a sheet and ran them over with his car. Nutmeats can be boiled to extract the oil. Butternut meal also makes a rich-tasting flour.


Squirrels, birds and deer devour beechnuts almost as soon as they ripen, or stash them in stonewalls, holes or hollow logs in anticipation of winter. Beech comes the Anglo-Saxon boc, meaning “word” or “letter,” and from which “book” is derived. Prior to papyrus, beech bark was used as a writing tablet. A stylus pushed over the bark tracked along the flow of grain, so circlular shapes had to be formed as a graduated series of corners. Thus, Gothic writing evolved as letters composed of angles, rather than curves.


American beech bears nuts annually, setting a heavy crop every third year. Two to three, 3/4-inch, triangular nuts nestle inside each bristle-covered husk. Nuts can be roasted and eaten out of hand, pressed to obtain the oil or dried and ground into flour.


Hickory nuts yield more meat than beechnuts. The sweetest nuts come from shagbark hickory—named after its peeling plates of bark. Each tough, four-parted husk encloses a thick shell around a tasty nut that can be eaten out of hand or substituted for walnuts when cooking.


Oak trees commonly grow alongside hickories. But all acorns are not created equal. Those from the white oak group—including white oak, swamp oak and chestnut oak—have white meats that are best for eating. The leaves of white oaks have rounded lobes and tips. Trees in the black oak group—such as black oak, red oak and scarlet oak—have sharp-tipped leaves and acorns that contain too much bitter tannin to eat without excessive boiling.


Gather white oak acorns soon after they drop, remove the shells and boil until the water turns brown. Drain and repeat, then put the nuts in a well-ventilated place to dry. Nuts can then be roasted and eaten plain or ground into a flour-like meal, molded and cooked into bread. Acorn bread is still baked in southern Italy and many cultures use acorns for high-protein fodder.


Filberts (hazelnuts) are also popular in Europe. Swedish folklore says anyone holding a hazelnut rod becomes invisible. Colonial women coming of age named each hazelnut after a desirable young male acquaintance. When these nuts were thrown onto the glowing coals of the hearth, the name associated with the hazelnut that flared brightest was that woman’s “fate” in marriage. We still say someone “holds a flame” for the object of their affection.


Wild American Hazelnut grows to 8 feet in hedgerows and moist woodlands. Beaked Hazelnut, which ranges farther north, sports a protuberance at the top of the husk. Ripe nuts have thin shells and sweet meats that can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into flour. For a rich cookie treat, find a recipe for “pecan sandies” and substitute ground hazelnuts in place of pecan meal.


Add wild nuts to your repertoire and you’ll enjoy a rich gustatory tradition of living close to the land.


*carbon nutprint: A small portion of a nut-eater’s carbon footprint.


Article adapted with permission from “Through a Naturalist’s Eyes: Exploring the Nature of New England” by Michael J. Caduto (University Press of New England, 2016)


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