Autumn has settled in, that magical amalgam of bright blue skies, cool crisp air, apple orchards, pumpkin patches and the most essential element of all- the turning (and raking) of the leaves. It is perhaps the season most associated with New England, an intimate connection to the trees that define and delineate our landscape. With bittersweet anticipation we look forward to the fall foliage riot- nature’s smug retort to the pyrotechnics of our July Fourth festivities.
While the colorful leaves garner most of our attention, a number of our local trees are producing nuts and seeds that are vital to the health and survival of our wintering birds and mammals. Acorns, beechnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts and black walnuts all provide essential nutrients that help many animals get through the harsh New England winter. In the not too distant past, our ancestors and native Americans also relied upon the cached nuts and seeds they had foraged in the fall to supplement their diet during the lean winter months.
Almost all of the tree nuts that are familiar to us, such as almonds, cashews, pistachios and common walnuts originated in other parts of the world, even though many of them are now cultivated in the U.S. Several species of our true native trees provide tasty, nutritious nuts that rival their introduced counterparts.
Pecan- The pecan tree (Carya illinoensis)is the largest and most commercially important member of the hickory family. The natural range for the pecan was the rich bottomland soils of the Mississippi River Valley but it has been extensively planted throughout the south and westward into New Mexico. The American Indians utilized the nuts and wood of the pecan long before the European explorers set foot on our shores. Georgia is the leading producer of pecans, with New Mexico and Texas distant runners-up. These three states account for 77% of the U.S. crop.
The vast majority of commercial pecans are hybridized varieties selected to insure a consistently dependable crop with larger nuts. Wild, non-hybridized pecans are being harvested from more northern states, particularly Missouri, and are the same variety foraged by the Native American Indians. Northern pecans tend to be smaller because they grow in a cooler climate but are sweeter tasting due to their higher oil content. These wild pecans are called American Native pecans and have been designated as an Ark of Taste heritage food by Slow Foods USA.
Pecans not only taste great but they are nutritious powerhouses as well. Pecans are an excellent source of antioxidants, so important in neutralizing harmful free radicals. They are a good source of protein, fiber, vitamin E, magnesium and zinc. The American Heart Association has designated pecans as heart-healthy through their Heart-Check Certification Program. Clinical Research has found that a pecan-enriched diet can significantly lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels. Another study suggests that pecans incorporated into the diet may impede the progression of age-related motor neuron degeneration, possibly due to the antioxidant properties of pecan’s vitamin E.
Say pecan and the first association that comes to mind is pecan pie, that iconic southern dessert. It’s time to think outside the pie shell and inside the nut shell because pecans have so many more possibilities. Try them chopped up in a nut-encrusted pan-fried fish fillet, as an addition to a holiday stuffing, on salads or roasted vegetables, with ice cream or just by the handful. An occasional warm slab of pecan pie topped with fresh whipped cream is a piece of heaven good for the soul if not the waistline.
Shagbark Hickory- Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is the primary edible tree nut of the northeast. Although it is not a commercially important species, shagbark nuts were an autumn harvest staple for many American Indian tribes. They would grind the nuts and mix them with water to make nut milk and nut cakes. Early settlers soon learned the value and various uses of hickory nuts from the Indians.
The oil from the nuts was used for lamps and the strong, resilient wood was used for tool handles, wagon wheels, and smoking meat. Hickory trees have the highest fuel value of all North American trees, producing the most BTU’s per cord of wood.
The shaggy appearance of the bark makes it easy to distinguish it from the more common bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) which, as the name implies, produces a distasteful nut. Even though they are difficult to procure on a retail level, they are sometimes available on-line. Shagbark nuts can be foraged in our New England forests, complimenting a nice woodland hike on a sunny autumn day.
Black Walnut- Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a magnificent tree species of the eastern deciduous forests and reaches the northern limit of its range in New England. They are most common in the mid-west and south central states east of the Great Plains. Black walnuts should not be confused with the common walnuts that most people are familiar with. The original range of the common walnut, sometimes referred to as the English or Persian walnut (Juglans regia), extended from the highlands of central Asia to the Middle East regions of Iran and Turkey. They were brought to the U.S. by the English colonists and are now extensively cultivated in California.
Commercially available black walnuts are wild harvested in their natural forest domain, brought to a collection site and then transported to a processing plant for shelling and packaging. The nutmeat-to- shell ratio of the black walnut is smaller than in the common walnut and the bold, robust flavor is much more pronounced, a testament to its wild heritage.
Black walnuts have the highest amount of protein (8 grams/ounce) when compared to all other tree nuts and are a good source of magnesium, potassium, zinc, fiber and omega 3 fatty acids. A research study published in the journal Food and Function showed that common walnuts are higher in total antioxidant polyphenols than any other commonly consumed nuts. This discovery may bode well for the nutritional value of the closely related black walnut as well.
Black walnut is also prized for its beautifully grained wood which many believe produces the finest lumber in North America. The wood is also strong and will not shrink or warp as it ages. Black walnut is used in the manufacture of furniture, cabinets and custom-crafted gunstocks.
From heirloom Ozark and Appalachian recipes passed down through the generations, to cutting edge gourmet chefs, black walnuts have been used to add a distinctive, regional touch to desserts, appetizers and entrees. Take a woodland walk on the wild side and harvest these versatile nuts right from the tree or do it vicariously by paying a visit to the Living Earth “tree” and get them shelled, bagged and ready to go.
Butternut- Sometimes referredto as white walnut, the butternut (Juglans cinerea) produces a delicious oily nut but is not commercially available in significant amounts. It favors rich bottomland and floodplain regions of eastern North America and is an important food source for a variety of animals including deer, squirrels and rabbits. The wood is not as strong or attractive as its black walnut counterpart. Early settlers used the bark and nut hulls to make a yellow dye. This was also true during the Civil War when other sources of yellow dye could not be obtained.
American Chestnut- No longer a viable species due to the virulent chestnut blight, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the dominant tree of the Appalachian Mountain region. Its range extended from Alabama north along the Appalachian chain into New England and the lower Great Lakes. Before the discovery of the fungal blight in 1904, the chestnut was an extremely valuable resource as a provider of food and lumber. The nuts were eaten by humans, livestock and forest wildlife. These are the chestnuts that were originally “roasting on an open fire” in towns and cities throughout the U.S. The European chestnut has replaced our native chestnut as an integral ingredient of the Thanksgiving table. Although there are some disparate areas where mature American chestnuts still survive, the tree will never regain its prominence without the help of human intervention. Numerous cross- breeding programs are underway to hopefully produce a resistant hybrid.
Pine Nuts- The vast majority of pine nuts sold in U.S. are imported from China. However, there are two species of native pine trees that produce enough nuts to warrant recognition. The Colorado pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) occurs in regions of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona at moderate elevations of 5000-8000 feet. The single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) is found primarily in Utah, Nevada and eastern California from 2000-7000 feet. Both species thrive in arid areas and are important to local Native American tribes who depend on the nuts not only for food but also as a cash crop. Areas have been set aside where these tribes have the sole harvesting rites. The trees also have cultural and spiritual significance to the tribes that harvest the nuts. Pine nuts are also an important food source for the birds, squirrels, bear and deer that inhabit these areas.
Native pine nuts are available on-line in limited quantities. They are more flavorful than Chinese pine nuts but be prepared to pay at least twice as much for these delicacies.
Native Nuts Available from the Living Earth “Tree”
American Native Organic Pecans 10 oz. bag
Tierra Farm Organic Pecans 8 oz. container
Hammons Shelled Black Walnuts 8 oz. bag
Bulk Organic Pecans for the Holidays
References: Elias, Thomas S. 1989.Field Guide to North American Trees. Grolier Book Clubs Inc.Vinson, Joe A. and Yuxing Cai. Nuts, especially walnuts, have both antioxidant quantity and
efficacy and exhibit significant potential health benefits. Food Function, 2012, 3, 134-140