Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
It’s fascinating to watch squirrels at work in the fall. They often seem oblivious to danger as they painstakingly find, carry, and bury nuts for the winter. While I don’t appreciate finding their stashes in my flowerpots, I do admire their industry.
But nuts aren’t just for squirrels. Many wild nuts make for excellent foraging opportunities for people too. They are densely packed with protein and other nutrients. Here is a rundown of some of the wild nuts you can gather for snacking, grinding into flour, and using in meals you prepare for your family.
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Due to the plentiful number of oak trees in North America, acorns have been a dependable food source for both natives and pioneers for generations. Acorns are rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fats and also contain calcium, potassium, and niacin.
However, acorns also have a high concentration of tannic acid. That means you need to remove the bitter-tasting tannins through the leaching process before consuming the nuts. After leaching, you can grind acorns to make flour for various baked goods or even make acorn coffee. You also can roast them and pop them in your mouth as tasty snacks.
If you’ve read the novel Farmer Boy in the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you may remember details from Almanzo’s efforts at gathering wild beechnuts. The nuts were so abundant that he used a wagon to haul them all home.
The nut of the beech tree is still a nutritious and delicious option for foragers. Although beech trees produce a supply of nuts every year, once every three to five years, they will create a bumper crop.
Beechnuts provide healthy fats and protein.Although you might be able to handle the slightly bitter taste of raw beechnuts (or even like it), it’s best to cook them before consuming a large quantity. That’s because beechnuts contain the toxin saponin glycoside, which can cause gastric upset.
Beechnuts have a spiky exterior husk that pops open when ripe. Inside are two small nuts with pointed sides. Here’s how to prepare and eat beechnuts.
3. Black Walnuts
Although the North American black walnut has a more bitter taste than its English counterpart, it still contributes a rich taste to baked goods.
Don’t be fooled by their name, however. The trees have black bark, but unhusked black walnuts look remarkably like green tennis balls. And the liquid inside that green hull will stain your hands and your clothes, so it’s best to wear gloves and old clothes when preparing these nuts.
Also called white walnuts or sweet white walnuts, butternuts are related to their more common cousin, the black walnut. However, they have a milder, sweeter flavor and are easier to crack open. Some people use them like pine nuts in recipes.
Butternuts are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Probably because of that high fat content, they will spoil quickly. So, it’s best to harvest nuts shaken or just fallen from the tree rather than those sitting on the ground.
Here’s more on foraging and preparing butternuts.
Although you can grind them into a flour for baked goods, we associate chestnuts most often with roasting. (It just might have something to do with the opening lyric of a certain Christmas song.)
Wild chestnuts have a very prickly outer husk that surrounds two or three nuts. You’ll need gloves to gather the nuts, which have a mild, sweet flavor.
Chestnuts contain protein, vitamin C and are higher in carbohydrates than fats. Here’s how to forage for wild chestnuts. You may need to do battle with the squirrels!
As far as easy picking and storing go, hazelnuts are winners. They often are visible in clusters in bushes at eye level in open woodlands and along forest edges. These edible nuts are fuzzy and sticky to the touch and ready to pick when they have some brown spots.
Packed full of protein and healthy fats, hazelnuts are a favorite of many woodland creatures, so you may need to act fast when you find a good spot. In other words, if you wait another day or two for them to ripen, they may be gone when you return.
7. Hickory nuts
You can eat these sweet, calorie-dense nut raws right out of the shell or roast them for recipes.
There are a dozen or more species of the hickory tree. Many of the trees share some characteristics, but not all of their nuts are edible. It’s important to use a field guide or an app to correctly identify the trees with edible nuts. Here is a guide to get you started.
This video also offers identification tips for edible hickory nuts, which are full of protein and healthy fats. Hickory nuts are easier to crack than many other foraged nuts. If left in the sun to dry for a few days, the nut meat will pull away from the shell easier when you crack it with a nutcracker or a rock.
8. Hop Hornbeams
Although perhaps not as well-known as some of the other names on our list, the hornbeam tree produces edible nutlets, or hops, that are roughly the size of a sunflower seed. Some years, these trees produce large amounts of seeds, thus providing a sizeable food source.
The hop hornbeam is an understory tree native to the eastern part of the U.S. Most of the trees grow to a maximum height of 30 feet with trunks less than a foot in diameter. Foresters typically consider them as “weed trees.” However, these “weeds” produce tasty seed clusters.
Unlike other hops, these hops won’t make beer, but you can eat them raw or roast them to enjoy their mild, nutty flavor. Another option is to grind them into a gluten-free flour for baked goods. Here’s more on how to identify and forage for hop hornbeams.
A member of the hickory family, the wild pecan is a prized find for foragers. Why? It’s easy to harvest, easy to shell, and has a meaty and delicious taste.
Historians report that pecan trees were once so numerous in the U.S. that our ancestors simply cut down whole trees and dragged or carted them home rather than taking the time to pick the nuts in the forest. This wasteful habit is particularly troublesome since the pecan tree drops its nuts to the ground for easy gathering in the fall.
Pecan trees still grow wild in parts of the midwestern, southeastern, and south-central states. The trees can be 120 to more than 150 feet tall, with frond-like pointy leaflets growing symmetrically on long stems.
If it’s mid to late fall, you’ll see pecans among the leaves or on the ground below the tree. All varieties of pecans are edible. Here are some tips for foraging and eating wild pecans.
10. Pine nuts
Pine nuts are found in the cones of pine trees. And if you’ve ever wondered why store-bought ones are so expensive, you’ll understand why when you try to forage for them yourself. It’s a labor-intensive and time-consuming process to harvest and shell the tiny nuts.
Pine nuts aren’t really nuts at all; they are seeds of a pine tree. In the United States, pine nuts that are sold commercially typically come from pinyon pine which is native to the Southwest. Pine nuts provide many nutrients, including protein, healthy fats, iron, magnesium, and vitamins E and K.
More tips for foraging wild nuts
Foraging is a great way to add to your food stores in times of plenty and need. However, foraging does come with some risks. Here are some steps to follow for safe and responsible foraging.
- Know the rules and regulations for foraging in your area.
- Only take what you need, leaving what’s left for other people and animals.
- If you are not positive about the type of tree or nut, do not eat it.
- Stay away from areas that may be subject to vehicle exhaust fumes, road salt, pesticides, or other environmental hazards.
Here are some helpful resources to assist you in your nut-foraging adventures.
- Foraging for Wild Foods by David Squire
- The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts by Katie Letcher Lyle
- Edible Wild Plants Foraging for Beginners by LomasiAhusaka
- Foraging for Beginners by Michael Taylor
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