There may not be another food that's been more valuable to humans throughout history than nuts. They’re uniquely nutritious with a trifecta of starch, oil, and protein that offers humans and wildlife a well-balanced fuel. They’re travel-friendly and can store for years in the shell. They can be eaten fresh, dried, or processed into a whole suite of staples and treats like flour, oil, butter, milk, and more.
There were native nut trees spanning the globe that provided invaluable food for our ancestors. They utilized, revered, tended, and even built whole cultures around these nuts. Luckily, nut trees still stand and produce literal tons of nuts each fall, but for some reason, many of them get hauled off with yard waste and dumped somewhere out of sight. If our ancestors heard the saying “If only money grew on trees,” I think they’d be confused. If you’re not already stashing away the nuts in your neighborhood, here are a few worth knowing, eating, and growing.
Acorns Oak trees (Quercus sp.) range across North America in the form of more than 50 native species and many hybrids. So even if you’re living in the arid West, which isn’t known for its nuts like the East, you’re still likely to have access to acorns.
There are a handful of oaks that produce nuts that are palatable without processing, but they’re kind of like the holy grail. Unless you’re growing your own, don’t expect to readily find these on the landscape. More commonly, acorns taste terrible right off the tree and need to be leached of their tannins before eating. This may sound daunting, but people have been leaching acorns for a long time without modern conveniences like running water, so if you have water and a little time, it’s within your wheelhouse. I promise it’s worth the effort.
Essentially, you want to dry them, shell them, grind them, and pass as many changes of cool water as it takes to get the tannins out. There’s no exact amount of water or time this takes given the variables, so taste the ground acorn meal after each change of water. You’ll know it’s done when it doesn’t taste bitter at all. This can take anywhere from an evening to more than a week depending on the amount of tannins your species has.
Once you like the flavor, drain well, squeeze all the water out through a jelly bag, and spread the meal out on baking sheets to dry thoroughly for storage. Try a small batch to start if you’re not sure it’s worth the time. Make a pile of acorn pancakes for breakfast and you’ll be back in the oak woods for more before lunch.
Hickories There are more than 15 species of native hickories in North America dropping some of the tastiest nuts you’ll ever eat. Unlike the acorn, hickory nuts are melt-in-your-mouth good right off the tree. The two species that win the hearts of humans everywhere are the pecan (Carya illinoinensis) of the South, and the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) that covers most of the East. These are both stately trees that grow to towering heights if given the space and can drop three to five bushels of nuts each year.
The pecan is so delicious and approachable with its large nuts and thin shells that it’s made its way into mainstream markets, already pre-picked and chopped for your snacking or baking pleasure. Those can be expensive, though, and don’t store as long out of their shell. If you’re in pecan country, keep your eyes peeled for the oblong nuts falling from the trees in autumn: One tree could keep you in pie all year long.
Shagbarks have a harder shell, but they’re nothing a nutcracker can’t handle. Many argue—and I agree—that shagbarks are the most delicious nut on the planet. They have a snappy, brazil-nut-like texture, but are more buttery and have a whiff of maple syrup. They’re such a treat all on their own it’d almost be a disservice to put them into a pie. Keep your eyes open for trees with long strips of peeling bark and limbs loaded with round, light green balls that split and peel away in four sections.
Sometimes the nuts will fall from the tree when they’re ripe but the husk is still green. This makes reaching the nuts much easier, but de-husking them is more tedious when they’re green. You can dry them a bit to make this easier. Sometimes they’ll ripen on the tree and the husk will brown and split open. This makes reaching the nuts harder, but de-husking a breeze. A surprisingly effective—if maybe a little primitive—method of knocking ripe nuts out of trees is to throw a large stick at them to knock them down.
Hazelnuts have always been my favorite in the holiday bowl of mixed nuts, so it was revelatory when I learned that the inconspicuous shrubs I’d been walking by my whole life were loaded with them every fall. American hazelnut (Corylus americana) is native to the whole eastern half of the country. The bulk of the hazelnuts that Americans consume, however, are cultivated in Oregon, so there are suitable habitats for hazels from coast to coast. Their tidy size makes them the most convenient to cultivate, and the fastest to bear nuts: Some produce mast after as little as two years.
They’re a common understory shrub to find in both wild and urban landscapes where they’re planted for their blazing fall foliage. If there’s a sunny spot on the edge of the woods, the edge of a trail, or the edge of your yard, a hazelnut could likely thrive there. They have a way of feathering hard edges between mature woods and open spaces in a way that wildlife really loves. A hazel hedge is a major wildlife magnet. I’ve often seen turkey hens nesting in them beside a hay field, and while picking hazelnuts a few weeks ago I jumped a whitetail buck out of the thicket. The gray squirrels weren’t about to be spooked off the buffet line and they stayed to pick right alongside me.
Walnuts I fill more baskets with walnuts than any other nut each year. Black walnut trees don’t dominate the forested landscape here like oak do, but there are enough of them standing tall along fencerows, floodplains, and front yards to get your fill. Growing up I knew black walnuts as the things that looked like little tennis balls but smelled like medicine and stained everything black, so naturally my friends and I threw them at each other. I didn’t know them as a food until adulthood, and I mourn those lost years now. Those observations from childhood helped speed up my learning curve while figuring out how to collect them for food though.
Let me save you a few weeks of explaining why your hands are brown by letting you know that you absolutely want to wear gloves while picking and processing. While you may not want to stain your skin, it should be noted that black walnut hulls yield beautiful brown ink or dye.
Black walnuts look similar to the grocery store standard English walnuts, but the flavor is surprising and hard to describe. It’s one of those polarizing pungencies that people either love or hate. I didn’t always love it, but a batch of black walnut brownies flipped some switch in me and now I can’t get enough.
If you can’t learn to love them, you might have some luck looking for another one of our native walnuts, which have a more classic walnut taste. Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are the most widespread of our North American walnuts, especially because people plant them outside of their native range for their valuable lumber, but you might be lucky to have butternut (Juglans cinerea), Southern California walnut (Juglans californica), Northern California walnut (Juglans hindsii), Arizona walnut (Juglans major), or little walnut (Juglans microcarpa) nearby.
The next time you’re out and about, even in the inner city, scan the sidewalks, lawns, and field edges for squirrels in trees, littering the ground beneath them. Chances are they’re nuts you’ll want to know.