Nuts!

Whether you like to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve or Día de Muertos, or maybe both, next week there will be plenty of small, colorful creatures collecting edible goodies. Some will ring doorbells while clad in homemade or purchased finery, others will wear their everyday wardrobe while bouncing on tree limbs, or shuffling through fallen leaves, or excavating frosty soil. But everyone will be in hunter-gatherer mode, in search of binge-worthy treats.

There’s a reason we think of October and November as harvest time, even though many agricultural fields have already been gleaned and tucked in for a long winter’s nap. Autumn is when nut-lovers hit the jackpot.

As Dash and I scanned our local stretch of the Huckleberry Trail looking for nuts—our goal and mantra for today’s journey—I had to remind myself that not all of the trees we were seeing are native to southwestern Virginia. Some were introduced by homeowners who live nearby, or maybe by squirrels who ventured into backyards, then back into the remnant patch of forest near the railroad easement to stash treasure below the forest floor.

The local stalwarts include black walnut (Juglans nigra L.)… it’s flavor some people cherish and others revile. Love or hate ’em, everyone needs to keep their ears open for the sound of these hard green golf balls crashing down from above or risk getting knocked on the noggin’.Shagbark hickory nuts (Carya ovata) are endemic to this region and other parts of North America. They’re a favorite from my own childhood because our next-door neighbor had a towering and prolific tree. Hickory nuts require a lot of coaxing, both to break open the shell and then to pry the meat out of tiny nooks and crannies but, imo, it’s well worth the effort.Honestly, I never really thought about pines as nut-bearing trees until I lived in New Mexico, where the the two-needle piñon pine (Pinus edulis) is a cherished part of the state’s cuisine.  Pine nuts (from a different Pinus spp.) are a familiar ingredient in Italian food, too, and I knew that but somehow failed to make the connection to a pinecone. I’ve not encountered local pine nuts on any menus here in southwest Virginia… maybe the local species aren’t as tasty (to humans), or maybe they’re just too hard to remove from the cone.Acorns, including those from the chestnut oak (Quercus prinus L.) and white oak (Quercus alba L.), are a staple for many wild animals… tree squirrels, of course, but also chipmunks and flying squirrels, as wells as bears, deer, opossums, raccoons, and rabbits. Birds also depend on this nutritious, high-calorie food to make it through the winter, including blue jays, quail, and wood ducks.The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the dominant forest species in Virginia, but most of these trees were killed over the course of a couple of decades when the chestnut blight fungus was introduced, accidentally, in the early 1900s. Researchers continue to experiment with resistant varieties, hoping to return these majestic giants to their rightful home. I keep hoping to spot one… even a stump sprout would make me wildly happy.

Do you have a favorite wild nut? Share your memories and photos in the comments section!

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Alan Wolf, pepperberryfarm, Laurie HulseyChris Luczkow, Bob Travis, Greg Wagoner, NatureServe, and Rachid H© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

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