By Michael Caduto
Keep a close eye out for when wild nuts ripen in order to beat chipmunks and other nut-lovers to the harvest. Photo: Michael J. Caduto
Gathering wild nuts is an autumn rite for many families and a longstanding tradition among the Alnôbak (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 this largess and buried the nuts in secret caches. Stores that were forgotten grew orchard-like groves of “wild” nuts around the lodges.
Not only are wild nuts healthy and economical, they’re better for the environment because they don’t require burning expensive, carbon-emitting fuels to transport from distant growers thousands of miles away. Wild nuts are organic, unless someone has been spraying chemicals nearby. And gathering wild nuts is an enjoyable recreational activity to share with friends and family.
Butternut and black walnut are now used in everything from cakes to fudge. The Latin genus, Juglans, means “Jove” or “Jupiter” acorns, after the Roman god of the sky. Butternut grows in open fields, hedgerows and young woodlots and bears oblong fruits, while black walnut prefers rich, moist woodlands and produces rounded nuts.
The nuts have a thick, spongy green husk covered with short brown hairs and a sticky coat. Colonists boiled husks to render a yellow-orange dye for wool. Inside each husk is a stubborn shell that requires a nutcracker, hammer or rock. Nutmeats can also be boiled to extract the oil. Black walnut or butternut meal makes a rich-tasting flour. But don’t store the nuts too long or they will become rancid.
Beechnuts rarely spoil because squirrels, birds and deer devour them as soon as they ripen, stashing them in stonewalls, holes or hollow logs in preparation for lean winter months. American beech trees bear 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.
Unfortunately for the beech, some people use its smooth bark as a carving post. In fact beech comes the Anglo-Saxon boc, meaning “word” or “letter,” and from which “book” is derived. Prior to papyrus, beech bark was produced as sheets for writing tablets. A stylus pushed over the bark tracked along the flow of grain, so circles had to be formed as a graduated series of corners. Thus, Gothic writing evolved as letters composed of angles, rather than curves.
Hickory nuts yield more meat than those of beech. The sweetest nuts come from shagbark hickory, so named for its large, 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. When leading wild edibles walks I’m often asked, “Can you eat acorns?” 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 the process, then put the nuts in a well-ventilated place to dry. Nuts can then be roasted and eaten plain or ground into meal, which is molded and cooked into bread by many indigenous peoples. Acorn bread is also baked in southern Italy and many cultures use acorns for high-protein fodder.
Filberts, too, are popular in Italy, but North Americans call them hazelnuts. 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. Most likely, those hazelnuts were not ripe because squirrels and mice quickly eat them and add to their winter middens.
Wild American hazelnut grows to about eight feet tall and prefers hedgerows. Immature seeds have a bristly coat, but September’s ripe nuts have thin shells and sweet meats. Beaked Hazelnut, which ranges farther north, sports a protuberance at the top of the husk. Nutmeats separate easily from the shell—they can be eaten raw, roasted or ground into meal. For a rich cookie treat, find a recipe for “pecan sandies” and substitute ground hazelnuts in place of pecan meal.
Many of our local wild nuts make excellent substitutes for store-bought varieties, especially considering the rising costs of food and the fuel needed for transport. Plus, they’re organic! Late summer and early autumn are excellent times to start your own tradition of gathering the wild harvest.
Portions of this article adapted with permission from Through a Naturalist’s Eyes: Exploring the Nature of New England by Michael J. Caduto.