The leaves are changing and starting to fall – and if you haven’t noticed yet, they’re not the only thing falling out of trees this time of year. This is the season when trees drop fruit and nuts that are edible to both you and the squirrels you may have to contend with if you take on a foraging adventure. From acorns to persimmons, this is a time of year when native bounty can still be found, even when gardens are being pulled up and put into the compost pile. With a little knowledge and some safety precautions, it is possible to find a significant amount of tasty and nutritious nuts around the wooded areas of Richmond. Just be careful – be a sustainable forager, as the native wildlife can’t run to the grocery store. They need these fruits to make it through the dark and cold winter.
The most obvious and ubiquitous nut that can be found throughout Richmond is the plentiful and often-hated acorn. The number of complaints we hear about acorns falling on roofs and cars, causing tripping hazards, and staining patios is quite high this year and for good reason. Acorns are everywhere! Acorns are the seed of Oaks and can range greatly in size and appearance, with some being the size of a finger nail and others almost the size of a ping pong ball. Beneath their fibrous hull lays a future towering Oak or a decent amount of nutrition if processed correctly.
Acorns in their raw state can be poisonous to humans, as they contain varying amounts of Tannins, which are protective compounds created by trees to limit damage to their seeds. Most people are most aware of tannins in red wine, which come from both the grapes themselves as well as the Oak barrels they are aged in. They are the compounds that make the wine a bit astringent and bitter, in a good way. When you have an excess of tannins, the result is a wholly inedible nut that just tastes plain bad. This can easily be solved by dehulling the acorn and soaking the nut meat in water to draw out the tannins. After proper processing, acorns are not eaten whole like most nuts. They are typically ground into a coarse flour that can then be used to make items such as pancakes and somewhat-bland crackers.
There are many websites online that can explain how to properly process acorn meat, but be sure to follow good instructions to avoid possible illness from excess tannins. Also note that while acorns are exceptionally plentiful, they are not the most nutrition-dense nut. Plus, from most accounts, they don’t taste like much when processed and cooked. While it may be a fun experiment, don’t expect exciting culinary results.
The next tree that produces edible nuts in large quantities around Richmond is the Hickory. All species in the Genus Carya produce nuts, and most of them are edible, with one being a highly sought-after nut during the holiday season. First, the tree that most people think of as a ‘Hickory’ will fall into several different species, including the Shagbark Hickory, Shellback Hickory, Mockernut Hickory, Pignut Hickory, and Bitternut Hickory. It is important to be able to properly identify the species, as not all produce palatable nuts, with Pignut and Bitternut both being species that produce bitter meat. This is one of the reasons many people do not harvest these nuts, as identification can sometimes be hard. It should also be noted that many of the edible species simply don’t have enough meat to make it useful as a food source for humans. The one exception to this is the Pecan.
Most people do not know that a Pecan is actually a type of Hickory, but that’s easy to understand, as the nuts do look somewhat different. We all know the Pecan for its appearance during the holidays in many baked goods and candies. There are multiple cultivars of the Pecan, but they are all in the genus, Carya. This classification makes it the most recognizable hickory nut that can be found in the Richmond area. Do note that after many years in the Richmond area, I have only found viable Pecan fruit on trees in the Petersburg/Colonial Heights areas due to their slightly southern location. While Pecan trees grow well through the region, it seems that only trees south of the Richmond Metro area are capable of producing viable nuts.
The final easily-found nut in the area comes from the Black Walnut tree, which produces large, edible nuts that have a very robust “walnut flavor.” The nuts that are typically thought of as walnuts come from the English Walnut tree, which produces large, mild-flavored flesh. Some nut producers even add small amounts of Black Walnut nut oil to their English Walnut flesh to produce a stronger walnut flavor. This strong flavor is one of the main reasons that Black Walnuts are not harvested in large quantities for their meat. It is also because the hull of a Black Walnut is extremely hard, and obtaining the flesh from the deeply-lobed nuts can be quite difficult. In areas where Black Walnuts are prolific trees, people collect the nuts to make confectioneries out of the meat, including Black Walnut cake and Black Walnut taffy. The use of these nuts in sweets allows the strong flavor of the meat to be tempered a bit, making for a very tasty treat.
While there are other edible items including mushrooms, Persimmons, other lesser sought-after tree nuts, it is good to start with the easily-attainable and relatively safe nuts listed above. With a little bit of knowledge and some elbow grease to get after the meat, it is possible to find a tiny banquet laying in your backyard. Do remember to make sure that your identification is spot-on, and that you follow all precautions to make sure the nuts are safe to eat! But most importantly, remember to leave enough for the animals that rely on this natural bounty.