Fall is the time for collecting wild nuts. At our house, we collect and use Hickory Nuts, Black Walnuts, and American Filberts (Hazelnuts). We use these because that's what we have easy access to. There are other varieties of wild nuts that I've used in the past, and they're all good in their own right.
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Many varieties of tree nuts are packed with nutrients as well as healthy fats and oils. Not to mention the fact that they have great flavor. We use nuts as snacks as well as in baking.
Most nut producing trees go through a three year cycle where they will produce a very heavy crop of nuts one year, then virtually no crop at all the following year, and a moderate crop the third year. I've seen this cycle repeat itself for many years, and is quite dependable.
Fortunately not all nut varieties are on the SAME cycle. While hickory nuts may be on a slow year, black walnuts (or some other variety) may be on a heavy year. Point is, there's almost always some kind of nut tree producing in quantities to make it worth your time collecting them.
Hickory nuts nuts are one of the most commonly collected of wild nuts. Hickories grow in upland hardwood forests, sometimes in pure stands.
remember as a kid my parents and I collected hickory nuts by the bucket
full on my grandparents farm. There are several members of the hickory
family, and nearly all of the produce very tasty edible nuts.
There are a couple of varieties that are very bitter and unpalatable. Bitternut and Pignut varieties fall into this category.
Black Walnuts trees are often grown for both their nut crops and for
their wood, which is prized for furniture and gun stocks. Many logs are
sent to veneer mills, where a top quality log can bring a high price.
Black walnuts are common in upland hardwood forests, but are unusual among the North American nut tree family in that they will also grow in lowland (river bottom) areas prone to flooding.
Black walnuts are admittedly an acquired taste. Not everyone cares for their flavor, which is quite a bit stronger than most nuts. Personally, I love them baked into cookies or brownies, but I don't care for their flavor cracked fresh from the shell.
Butternuts are close relatives of black walnuts. In fact they are often called white walnuts. Butternuts are very high in oil and have a "buttery" texture and flavor. Like most nuts they can be collected in the fall. Butternuts grow in upland hardwood forests (when they can be found).
Due to their high oil content, butternuts can become rancid fairly quickly. If you can find a producing tree, it's best to collect the nuts and shell them within a couple of weeks. They store very well frozen.
Butternuts are becoming increasingly rare due to a deadly fungal infection that was introduced to North American back in the 1950's. Butternut tree populations have been reduced by 75% or more by butternut canker, and have been completely wiped out in some areas of the former range. Here in southern Indiana they are nearly gone. I know the location of a couple of mature trees but that's about it.
If you know where there are butternut trees growing, I recommend collecting some nuts and trying them for yourself.
American Chestnut Trees used to be one of the most common hardwood
trees in eastern North America. The nuts were sources of food for
Native American, early Settlers, wildlife, and domestic livestock.
Nuts form inside spiny burrs that turn brown and open in the fall.
Chestnuts are about an inch in diameter, and resemble buckeyes or large acorns without their caps. Chestnut trees do not follow the three year productivity cycle. They produce heavily every year.
Buckeyes are poisonous, so make sure you can tell the difference between them and chestnuts. A good resource for telling the difference is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees - Eastern Region. This is a superb reference book that shows pictures of leaves, nuts/fruit, blossoms, and bark, as well as well written information about each species listed.
Chinkapins are smaller relatives to American chestnuts. Growth and
appearance are similar. The main difference is that the nuts rarely get
larger than 1/2" in diameter, and are usually smaller than that.
Chestnuts and Chinkapin nuts can be eaten raw or roasted. Roasted nuts have a sweet nutty flavor.
American Chestnuts and Chinkapins are another species that have been damaged by an introduced disease. At the turn of the 20th century, a fungal infection was introduced with Asian Chestnut stock. This "blight" spread rapidly and by 1950 nearly all mature chestnut trees has been destroyed. An estimated 3.5 to 4 billion trees were destroyed. The blight infects the bark of the trees and cut off their supply of water and nutrients from the roots. Often, the roots survived the attack, and some new sprouts continue to grow from old root stock even today.
There are also a very few rare surviving mature trees scattered across their old range. Experts believe that less than 500 mature trees remain. Breeders are hopeful that these will prove blight resistant. Nuts are collected from these trees, and propagated into saplings and intentionally exposed to blight to test for resistance. The long range plan is to develop and reintroduce the blight resistant strains back to their original range. Let's hope they succeed!
If you see chestnut trees growing in the eastern US, it is most likely a Chinese Chestnut. These are an introduced species, planted mostly after the blight wiped out the native chestnuts. Chinese chestnuts are about the same size and shape as American chestnuts, however people who have had the opportunity to taste the native variety claim that American Chestnuts have a better flavor. Most of us will probably never know...
Hazelnuts also called American Filberts are one of my favorite nuts to collect in the fall. Not because I like them better than other varieties, but because of nostalgia...The only naturally occurring patch of wild hazelnuts that I personally knew about grew on my grandparents farm. I used to collect them handfuls at a time. The old farm has since been sold and the hedgerows where they grew were removed to allow for more efficient modern farming techniques.
Before they were destroyed, I managed to collect some plants, and grow them on my farm now. My page on growing hazelnuts tells more about how to cultivate these little gems.
Hazelnuts grow in bushes and hedges, rarely forming a tree. They can be found growing in old fence rows and along forest boundaries. Nuts grow abundantly, and taste very similar to commercially grown hazelnuts, but are only about half the size.
Pecans are related to Hickory Nuts and Walnuts. In the wild, pecans can be found growing in river bottoms. They are most common in the deep south, but can be found as far north following the Mississippi River Valley to the Illinois/Wisconsin state line, as well as along the Ohio River Valley to West Virginia.
When I lived in Louisiana and Southwest Mississippi as a teenager, there were enormous groves of cultivated pecan trees, and you could buy pecans from roadside stands by the pound or by the 50 pound bag.
Wild pecans are every bit as tasty as their cultivated cousins, and if you can find a tree, they are just as productive. The nuts may be a bit smaller than domesticated varieties, but not much.
Yes - Surprisingly, Beech trees do bear nuts, although very small ones, and inconsistently from year to year. I remember eating them as a kid, while running around in the woods. They are very small, and not something that you would likely want to spend time collecting lots of. They're more like a tasty trail snack.
Apparently there's a big difference between American Beech and European Beech (which is an introduces species in North America). American Beech nuts are sweet when eaten in the fall. That's the kind I've eaten. European Beech apparently has much higher levels of tannins in them and so are rather bitter - I have read that they're about like eating acorns!!!
Beech trees, when they do bear nuts, produce huge quantities. You'll have to fight the squirrels and other wildlife to get any though. Beechnuts are a favorite fattening-up-for-winter food.
Some people collect beech nuts and extract the oil, which has been compared to olive oil in it's quality.
Wild Nuts are an excellent source of nutrient and healthy oils. They are easily collected and are packed with flavor. They make excellent snacks, and are awesome in baked goods and mixed into hot cereals. If you have a place where you can collect wild nuts, give them a try. There's a little bit of effort involved in cracking them and picking out the nutmeats, but they're worth every minute.